Legislature tackles safe harbor, adoption and prescription drugs
by ERIC WATSON, State Rep.
Apr 02, 2013 | 650 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Obviously, most of the buzz on Capitol Hill last week surrounded Gov. Bill Haslam’s announcement during a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly that he will not expand the state’s Medicaid rolls pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, most commonly recognized as ObamaCare.

Instead, the governor told lawmakers he will independently pursue a “Tennessee Plan” for expanding health care coverage to those truly in need.

I’ll have more to say about the governor’s decision a little later. But for now, here are a few tidbits of other legislative action that occurred last week. In case you missed it, the Medicaid decision wasn’t the only newsmaker.

Here’s a few more:

1. Safe Harbor bill: Legislation which aims to improve health outcomes for infants born to drug-addicted mothers is set to be heard in the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee this week. House Bill 277 encourages pregnant women who misuse prescription drugs to access early prenatal care and drug rehabilitation. In exchange, they would be given a “safe harbor” from having their parental rights terminated through a petition filed by the Department of Children’s Services due to prenatal drug abuse. The safe harbor only applies if the mother is seen by an obstetrician provider within the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, attends regular prenatal visits, and complies with substance abuse treatment.

2. Adoption: Tennessee has the highest adoption rate in the nation, according to Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry. The commissioner recently appeared before state lawmakers to present his department’s budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

3. Prescription drugs: House Bill 519 was approved by the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee last week restricting any person, besides a licensed medical professional, from selling, delivering or helping anyone to obtain a drug through the use of TennCare. Written to stop potentially fraudulent abuse of TennCare benefits, the legislation makes such an offense a Class E Felony, a sentence that includes mandatory jail time.

And now, more about the governor’s decision not to expand our state’s Medicaid rolls. In his remarks, the governor told lawmakers, “I believe Tennessee can be a model for what true health care reform looks like; reform that will take significant steps to save the state and the nation from the unsustainable path we are now on.”

The central premise of the “Tennessee Plan,” which includes helping insure an additional 175,000 Tennesseans currently in need of health insurance, would save the state millions of dollars by allowing the Department of Human Services to buy policies for the uninsured from private insurers, rather than adding them to the state’s TennCare rolls.

Following the announcement, House lawmakers commended the governor on his decision and praised Haslam for moving forward with a plan to ensure all Tennesseans have access to quality and affordable health care without being tied down by federal bureaucracy and mandates. They also praised the governor for thoroughly researching the issue and approaching it in a thoughtful manner.

Haslam told lawmakers his decision was influenced by the fact that he had received no assurances from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the state could proceed with a "Tennessee Plan" under President Obama’s proposal; thus, he would not be including the federal funding offered for expansion in his budget.

In an unrelated development, but one you need to be made aware of, the Tennessee House of Representatives is working hard to conclude our 2013 legislative business. We’re working full steam — last week, this week and beyond — to wind down a variety of important bills that are making their way to the full House floor for final action.

As progress continues to be made over the next several weeks, the Legislature will begin debate on the 2013-14 budget proposed by the governor.

At the beginning of the year, the House passed new rules to help streamline the legislative process, including a new 15-bill limit and changes that reworked the House committee system to allow for more efficient and effective government. Through these changes, the Legislature has seen the lowest total bill filings in nearly 30 years. In 1987, there were 1,186 pieces of legislation filed. This year, 1,339 House bills were filed.

We also have news to report related to Hall Income Tax Relief for senior citizens. More senior citizens will qualify for Hall tax relief under legislation approved by the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee last week. House Bill 192 is part of the governor’s legislative package to provide tax relief to citizens across the state. The package also includes House Bill 193 to reduce the state sales tax on food from 5.25 percent to a flat 5 percent rate.

The Hall tax is imposed on income derived from interest on bonds, notes and stock dividends. Since enactment of the Hall tax in 1929, the use of investment savings has grown as a primary source of retirement income. As such, the legislation approved last week raises the Hall income tax exemption level for citizens age 65 and older from $26,200 to $33,000 for single filers and from $37,000 to $59,000 for joint filers.