April 13 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Tennessee urges school districts to tailor teacher evaluations (CA/Roberts)
Tennessee isn’t changing the mechanics of how it grades teachers and principals, but it is encouraging districts to customize the process, including involving students more and offering alternatives for assessing the skill level of the state’s educators. Next year will be the fifth year since the state revamped the evaluation process, going from a system where teachers were evaluated once every five years to a system that uses multiple measures to judge their effectiveness every year, including four classroom observations. Half of them are unannounced. Last week the state Department of Education shared what it learned from last year’s data with the state board of education in Nashville.

Woman charged in TennCare fraud, drug scheme (Commercial Appeal/Callahan)
A Bartlett woman has been arrested on charges of committing TennCare fraud, officials said. Fannie Randolph, 52, has been charged with eight counts of identity theft and six counts of TennCare fraud. She was taken into custody last week, but later released on bond. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Randolph used patient identities and forged doctor signatures to commit the fraud. TBI agents began their investigation in November 2013. According to the TBI, the fraud took place between December 2012 and September 2013.

Plan To Build A Home For Tennessee State Museum Could Be In For Fight (WPLN)
A fight is brewing over a $120 million plan to build a permanent home for the Tennessee State Museum, led by lawmakers who think the money could be put to better use. Less than two weeks after Gov. Bill Haslam gave the green light to plans to build on a section of Bicentennial Mall long earmarked for a museum, state Rep. David Alexander (R-Winchester) is hinting there could be an insurrection among Republicans. He thinks the state should save the money or spread the wealth over several projects, like building roads.

Court fee bill progresses (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Witt)
A $5 additional fee for Knox County Criminal Court cases got approval from the state Senate and is expected to go to a vote in the state House this week. House backing on Tuesday appears likely, and if the measure is signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam, the Knox County Commission will next vote on whether it can be implemented. A two-thirds commission vote will be needed for the new fee to be added. “My hope is that we can get it there in either May or June,” Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond said Friday. Hammond proposed the fee to help pay for costs of operating the 4th Circuit Court in the clerk’s office.

Animal fighting bill would put bigger bite in Tenn. law (News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
After decades of repeated rejection, legislation that would increase penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee seems poised for passage in the Tennessee General Assembly. But some advocates for animal protection have again lost an attempt to reinstate state regulation of what they call “puppy mills,” large-scale operations for breeding dogs. The bill to enhance penalties for animal fighting (SB1024) has already passed the Senate, as has similar legislation in the past. But this year the companion House bill has also cleared the House Agriculture Committee, which has historically been the roadblock to enactment despite the repeated efforts of sponsor Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, in recent years.

Leadership ‘on sidelines’ for Insure Tenn, professor says (TN/Boucher, Tamburin)
Advocates for the governor’s controversial health care plan curse Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell, their fellow lawmakers and special interest groups alike for the death of Insure Tennessee. But navigating the path necessary to successfully pass controversial legislation is seldom easy or swift, note several political observers. “I think Beth has done a real good job in handling the House and handling the affairs. She’s done well,” said Jimmy Naifeh, former Democratic speaker of the House from 1991 to 2009.

Tennessee moves to speed up testing process for genetic diseases (TFP/Belz)
For new parents still at the hospital, it can be painful to watch a nurse come into their room with a needle and prick their infant’s tiny heel to collect a few drops of blood on a piece of filter paper. Parents may forget quickly about the ordeal. But the hospitals know just how crucial those few drops can be. They are a map for laboratories to test for two dozen conditions that include genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. Without such tests — and without fast turnaround times for results — some disorders can cause disability or even death within an infant’s first few weeks. One in 800 babies is born with such conditions.

New Wrinkle for Health Law (Wall Street Journal)
Millions of people have gained health coverage through Medicaid since states began expanding the program under the Affordable Care Act. That also means more Americans may find themselves caught in a little-known law that lets states go after their assets after they die. For more than 20 years, federal law has allowed states to recover almost all Medicaid costs if recipients are 55 or older when they die. This now applies to many of the 11 million people who joined Medicaid since the health law’s expansion of the state-federal insurance program. The upshot: Some families are discovering they may have to sell a home or other assets of a deceased relative to reimburse the government. States can’t seize assets during the lifetime of a surviving spouse, or when surviving children are under 21 or permanently disabled.

China again heads foreign visitor list at ORNL (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)
China once again headed the roster of foreign nationals visiting Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2014, continuing a trend in place for at least the past decade. According to statistics provided by ORNL, there were 3,799 total visits by foreign nationals in 2014, with about a fourth of those visits (937) involving Chinese citizens. Some of the foreign nationals visited the lab more than once, so the total number of foreign visitors was 2913 and the number of unique visitors from China was 659. Other countries in the top 10 for visits were India (396); the United Kingdom (240); Canada (223); Germany (200); South Korea (168); France (125); Russia (105); Italy (87); and Mexico (82).

OPINION

Guest columnist: Seeking cure for Tennessee’s prescription drug epidemic (Tenn)
The scope of prescription drug abuse in Tennessee is staggering. There are an estimated 69,100 Tennesseans addicted to prescription opioids, according to the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. There’s further evidence that Tennessee is facing an epidemic: In 2012, prescription opioids became the No. 1 substance for abuse in Tennessee – besting alcohol for the first time; The number of ER visits for prescription drug poisoning increased 40 percent from 2005 to 2010. Drug-related crimes have increased 33 percent from 2005 to 2012.

Editorial: Bill on cellphones in polling places needs amending (News-Sentinel)
A bill that would severely restrict cellphone usage in Tennessee polling places is nearing final approval in the General Assembly. On the one hand, the bill recognizes advancements in technology and would allow people to continue using them to pull up information that could help them decide how to vote. On the other hand, it would needlessly prohibit the use of cellphones to take photographs or videos of activities inside the polling place. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson, and Sen Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the bill won unanimous bipartisan approval in the Senate last month with no debate. In the House, Democrats challenged the ban on photography but failed to amend the measure. The only House amendment would change the effective date of the law to Jan. 1, 2016.