Capitol Hill Week – February 16, 2017

Senate Commerce and Labor Committee hears testimony regarding efforts to combat Tennessee’s Opioid Epidemic

NASHVILLE, Tenn.Members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee heard testimony this week from Tennessee’s largest health insurance carrier, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBS), about efforts to combat the state’s opioid epidemic.  Over the last several years, Tennessee has passed legislation to prevent abuse by “pill mills” and strengthen the state’s drug monitoring database. Even so, opiate abuse continues to have a death grip on Tennessee, making it a critical health concern.


In 2012, prescription opioid drugs surpassed alcohol as the most abused substances in Tennessee, with the state having the second highest rate of prescriptions per person in the nation.  More Tennesseans died in 2015 and 2014 because of drug overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents.  Tennessee is not alone.  The U.S. Surgeon General has declared opioid addiction is a public health crisis nationwide.


As a result, BCBS has taken steps to address opioid abuse, including new guidelines on prescribing, a data system which identifies providers who prescribe painkillers at higher rates, and an education program called “Count It! Lock It! Drop it!”   BCBS partnered with the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition to launch the program to educate patients about the need to count the number of pills in a container to spot shortfalls, to lock up opioids from potential abusers, and to drop off leftover medications in a designated location for proper disposal.


Approximately 55 percent of people who abuse painkillers get them from a friend or family member.  Another 16 percent of abusers steal them from a friend or family member.


“This problem is so big that if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Dr. Andrea Willis, Chief Medical Officer for BCBS told committee members.  “That’s why we are here today – to tell you about our multi-faceted approach to being a part of the public health solution.”


Opioid abusers are not the only persons harmed by the epidemic.  Other victims include children in state custody and infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) due to their mother’s dependency on painkillers.  NAS is a condition in which the newborn suffers withdrawal from drugs including tremors, weight loss, stiff muscles, seizures, inconsolable crying, gastrointestinal disorders and poor nervous system irritability.  Almost 1,000 babies were born with NAS in Tennessee in 2016.


About half of children in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services are there due to parental drug abuse.  These young victims are in addition to other family members, friends and communities who are harmed as a result of prescription drug abuse, not to mention those persons who suffer from opioid-related crimes.


The financial cost is another major side effect of prescription opioid abuse in Tennessee.  Approximately $155.2 million is lost in productivity due to abuse, while $27.9 million is spent in health care costs for prescription opioid poisoning and $45.6 million in state-funded treatment is spent for people at or below the poverty level seeking rehabilitation.


The Tennessee Department of Public Health has developed an approach to fight the opioid abuse epidemic by furthering primary prevention, enhancing monitoring and surveillance of prescriptions, strengthening regulation and enforcement, increasing utilization of treatment and improving access to appropriate pain management.  In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Haslam said Tennessee would be expanding substance abuse and crisis intervention treatment services and supports during the 2017-2018 fiscal year.


“Opioid addiction is an everyday battle Tennessee will continue to face,” said Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin). “The presentation we heard this week was a stark reminder of the challenges ahead as we fight prescription drug abuse.  It will take all of us working together to turn back the tide of this epidemic and we appreciate the help of our health insurance providers, like BlueCross BlueShield, in this effort.”


Lawmakers will continue to talk about opioid abuse in the coming weeks as a variety of bills tackling the problem comes before the General Assembly.


Resolution urging President Trump and Congress to block grant federal transportation funds to states is approved by full Senate


A resolution urging President Donald Trump and the United States Congress to enact legislation to establish a transportation block grant funding program for distribution to the states was approved 30 to 2 by the full Senate on Thursday.  Senate Joint Resolution 59, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), also urges the enactment of legislation to repeal all federal mandates, either by statute, rule, or policy, that dictate the expenditure of federal transportation funding.


“A block grant program, combined with elimination of federal mandates would enable us to self-determine our transportation priorities and address Tennessee’s longstanding highway infrastructure needs,” said Senator Beavers.  “Congress should minimize the federal government’s role in transportation spending, leaving states to decide how best to invest in the infrastructure that our citizens deem most necessary.”


Federal transportation dollars are primarily funded by motorists and truckers who pay a series of user taxes.  The resolution maintains that federal transportation policy has lost its focus as to the use of the federal highway trust fund by diverting money for non-road purposes.  This is done through federally-legislated mandates and earmarks that dictate how states can expend the funding.  Additionally, states are required to enact or adopt specific statutes and rules to qualify for federal monies or maintain eligibility for federal funding of highway programs.


The resolution expresses Tennessee’s growing dissatisfaction with federal transportation policy and mismanagement of the federal highway trust fund that has encouraged many in Congress and state governments nationwide to seek ways to overhaul the system.  It also suggests that a remedy would be the development of a block grant distribution plan whereby each state would receive a block grant from the federal highway trust fund equal to the federal fuel tax revenues raised within its borders.  States would be entitled to spend such grants on transportation priorities of their own choosing


The resolution calls for a copy to be delivered to the President Trump, the Speaker and the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives, the President and the Secretary of the United States Senate, and to each member of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation.


Senate Transportation and Safety Committee hears Governor Bill Haslam’s Transportation Plan


The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee heard testimony from Senior Advisor to Governor Bill Haslam, Stephen Smith, Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer, and Deputy Commissioner Paul Degges regarding the governor’s proposed transportation plan.  The plan calls for the implementation of 962 transportation projects in all 95 counties in the state upon approval of funding by the General Assembly.


To pay for the plan, the governor has proposed increasing the highway user fee by seven cents for a gallon of gas and 12 cents for a gallon of diesel, which is estimated to costs travelers about $4 per month.  The state’s gasoline tax rate at 21.4 cents per gallon was last raised in 1989.  The state’s diesel fuel tax rate at 18.4 cents per gallon was last raised in 1990.


The Haslam administration officials emphasized that the projects would be balanced across the state and that over 200 of them have been requested by communities to address industrial and residential growth.  Approximately 52 percent of the proposed road projects are urban and 48 percent are rural.


“One of the things that we really did want to do is to make sure that we equalize the amount of projects across the state,” said Commissioner Schroer.  “We are a very wide and short state, and we wanted to make sure that we had a fair amount of projects in each one of those.”


Tennessee has approximately 11,000 local roads, 40 percent of which are over 50 years old. Likewise, there are 8,000 state bridges in which 40 percent are over 40 years old. The Haslam officials said the governor’s transportation plan would assist in the aging infrastructure that has an average life expectancy of 50-75 years. Along with structural aging, functional obsolescence is also becoming an issue due to rapid population increases they said.


The plan includes 45 projects to improve interstates, 89 projects to improve access in rural communities, 51 projects geared toward creating economic opportunities, 162 bridges replaced on state highways and 562 bridges replaced on county roads.  They are mapped on the Department of Transportation’s website at  TDOT said that, if approved, 94 percent of the projects will be underway in the next six years.


Smith referred to State Comptroller Justin Wilson’s 2015 report on transportation funding which showed that Tennessee’s fuel taxes have stagnated and are not expected to be sufficient to maintain existing infrastructure and meet long-term transportation demands.  In his study, the Comptroller listed 11 wide-ranging options from raising rates on motor fuel and taxing alternative fuel vehicles, to tolls and debt financing.


Tennessee currently relies on fuel taxes to fund its highways and does not use debt financing, tolls, or general fund revenues.


Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hears report on the health of Tennessee’s Forests


The Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony this week from Tennessee Forestry Commission Chairman Bob Qualman and State Forester Jere Jeter about the health of Tennessee’s forests and what the commission is doing to address important long-term issues.  The commission addresses many challenges facing Tennessee’s forests such as new forest pests, invasive species, declining forest quality, wildfires, helping with ice storm emergencies and more.


Tennessee has approximately 14 million acres of forests which are important in providing beautiful landscapes, wood products, clean water and abundant wildlife habitat.  In addition, forestry employs about 100,000 people directly or indirectly and accounts for 4.3 percent of the state’s economy.


Although fire occurrence has decreased in Tennessee for the past 50 years, Qualman and Jeter reported that Tennessee’s forest loss due to wildfires more than doubled last year.  From July 2015-June 2016, the division suppressed 1,247 wildfires that burned nearly 18,000 acres, not including the Sevier County and East Tennessee wildfires that scorched the state’s forests last fall.


Fire protection is a main concern for forest preservation with fire suppression being one of the main reasons the division of Forestry was created over 100 years ago.  The forestry division has numerous workshops and programs they offer to reduce wildfires.


The commission has also been working aggressively to eradicate the ever-increasing number of native and non-native pests encroaching on Tennessee’s forests.   These include the gypsy moth, hemlock woolly adelgid, southern pine beetle and invasive plants.


On the economic impact of Tennessee’s forests, the state had a record $3.3 million in timber sales revenue in fiscal year 2016.  In hundreds of rural communities across Tennessee, agriculture and forestry are the primary drivers of local economic activity.  The health of the state’s forests is particularly important to these rural communities.  However, Qualman emphasized the commission’s interest in the health of urban forests in the state as well.


“Tennessee’s forests are very important to the health and economic well-being of our state,” said Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Steve Southerland (R-Morristown).  “All Tennesseans have a stake in making sure our forests are sustainable.  The commission’s annual report points us in the direction of the many opportunities we have to improve the general health of our forests. I am also very grateful for the commission’s work during the Sevier County wildfires. Crews from the commission gave their time and bulldozers towards the firefighting effort.”


The testimony came prior to Senate approval of Senate Bill 88, sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), to continue the agency for another four years.


In Brief..


POW/MIA Flag – The full Senate voted on Thursday to fly the POW/MIA flag over the Tennessee Capitol to honor and remember the sacrifices of soldiers who are prisoners of war or missing in action.  Senate Bill 125, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), calls for the flag to be flown during the time the legislature is not in session since the space on the Capitol’s cupula is limited.  The General Assembly’s flag only flies over the Capitol when the legislature is in session.  In 1971, Mrs. Michael Hoff, the wife of a U.S. military officer listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War, developed the idea for a national flag to remind every American of the U.S. servicemembers whose fates were never accounted for during the war.  The black and white image of a gaunt silhouette, a strand of barbed wire and an ominous watchtower was designed by Newt Heisley, a former World War II pilot. More than 83,000 Americans and more than 200 Tennesseans are still missing or unaccounted for since World War II.


Tennessee Captive Industry – The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance recently announced that a record annual total of 104 risk bearing entities (RBEs) were added to the state’s captive insurance market in 2016. These new captives are comprised of 30 pure captives, five protected cell companies, one association captive, one risk retention group, and 67 new protected cells. A captive insurance company represents an option for many corporations and groups wanting to take financial control and manage risks by underwriting their own insurance. TDCI’s Insurance Division is responsible for regulating Tennessee’s captive insurance industry.  In 2011, Governor Bill Haslam signed the revised State of Tennessee’s Captive Statute, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which made the state’s existing captive insurance laws more effective, balanced, and flexible.  Legislation enhancing the volunteer state’s status as a captive insurance domicile followed in 2015, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), and in 2016, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), and Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon).  The record number of new formations in 2016 brings the state’s total to 159 captive insurance companies and 379 protected cells formed, for a total of 538 RBEs.  An internal economic development survey conducted in the summer of 2016 showed that captive insurance has already brought 82 new full-time white collar jobs to Tennessee and over $430 million in direct and indirect spending and capital investment to the state.


THDA / Loan Servicing — Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) Executive Director Ralph Perrey appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week to present their proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.  THDA was created by the State Legislature in 1973 to provide loans, grants, tax credits, and other financing opportunities to encourage the construction, repair, and preservation of affordable housing and to help ensure the housing market meets the needs of every Tennessean.  Perrey updated committee members about the agency’s new loan servicing division.  THDA had traditionally outsourced loan servicing but, given the significant changes within the industry in recent years, decided that a significant cost savings could be realized by handling the servicing of its own loans. In the three months the Volunteer Mortgage Loan Servicing has been up and running, THDA has been able to reduce the number of delinquent accounts by 40 percent. Perrey said the agency aspires to excel in the management of resources and finances to produce strong earnings that can be put to work elsewhere in Tennessee.


TBI — The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) this week who came before them to present their 2017-2018 budget proposal. The TBI highlighted some of last year’s achievements which included the capturing of 21 criminals through the agency’s Top 10 Most Wanted Fugitive Program and the conviction of 242 defendants through the Criminal Investigation Division. Through the sex offender registry, TBI was able to track 21,856 sex offenders, and the Forensic Services Division completed 397,380 tests on 80,987 pieces of evidence. TBI Director Mark Gwyn also discussed the unique approach Tennessee has taken to address human trafficking by attempting to change the culture which surrounds it. The new approach includes treating the young women involved as victims as opposed to prostitutes. This allows TBI to target the solicitors of the victims and aid the victims in finding a path to a better life.


Autism Spectrum Disorder –Senate Health and Welfare Committee members approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), designed to help those affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Senate Bill 199 creates the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder – a dedicated committee that will focus solely on aiding those with special needs and their families.  Along with establishing a long-term plan for a system of care for individuals with ASD, the Council will also make recommendations and provide leadership in program development regarding matters concerning all levels of ASD services in health care, education, and other adult and adolescent need areas.  The Autism Society currently estimates that about one percent of the world population has ASD, affecting over 3.5 million Americans. The organization also notes that Autism Spectrum Disorder is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States.  The legislation now goes to the full Senate for final approval.


Hall Income Tax / Elderly — The Senate Revenue Subcommittee approved legislation this week which exempts any taxpayer 100 years of age or older from the Hall Income Tax.  Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), also applies to taxpayers who file a joint return and either spouse is 100 years of age or older.  The legislation now goes to the full Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

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