Capitol Hill Week – Legislation combats welfare fraud in Tennessee

NASHVILLE — The State Senate tackled a wide variety of issues this week as committees prepare to close for the 2017 legislative session.  Many important issues still remain on the General Assembly’s agenda before adjourning next month, including the state’s budget, which will move front and center in the remaining weeks.


Legislation designed to combat welfare fraud in Tennessee was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week. Senate Bill 365, sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), requires agencies within state government to communicate with each other to identify people who are receiving benefits for which they are not eligible.


Studies estimate Tennessee loses approximately $123 million per year in fraudulent payments to people who are not actually qualified to receive benefits.


“Any money that is obtained through fraud in the welfare system costs the taxpayers of Tennessee money,” said Senator Roberts.  “But more importantly, it makes less money available to those who qualify for benefits and really need assistance.”


Called the Program Integrity Act of 2017, the legislation creates a new system of enhanced verification in Tennessee, requiring the Department of Human Services (DHS) to conduct quarterly data matches against information databases to help eliminate fraudulent payments that are being made.  It also authorizes DHS to join a multistate cooperative for identifying individuals who currently receive Tennessee benefits but who live in other states.  In addition, the Bureau of TennCare would be required to verify wage and income information, immigration status, and vital records information for each applicant or enrollee once their new automated electronic eligibility system is operational.  The state has been continuing development of the Tennessee Eligibility Determination System (TEDS) to help detect those who misuse the welfare system.


“As people move, get jobs, pass away, or simply falsify their economic statuses, this new computerized crosscheck system will help detect fraud, ensuring that those who receive benefits are those who actually qualify,” added Sen. Roberts


In addition to the new enhanced verification system, the legislation also requires the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation to make a monthly report to DHS of all individuals who collect a prize of more than $5,000 to ensure that those who exceed income requirements do not continue to collect taxpayer-supported payments. While federal rules require recipients to self-report this income, this change simply adds an extra layer of security to the process by requiring the Lottery Corporation to report these winnings so that it can be crosschecked through the system.


The bill, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this year, now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration before going to the governor for his signature.


Legislation creates Middle College Scholarship Program for high schools students who are also taking community college courses


The Senate Education Committee approved legislation this week creating a Middle College Scholarship Program to help students who are earning a Middle College degree.   Middle College is a public community college program that, in partnership with the Local Education Agency (LEA), permits high school students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree during their junior and senior years.  Although the program facilitates a seamless transition to post-secondary education, due to the requirement that recipients have a high school degree, the students are not eligible for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship.


Senate Bill 720, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), calls for a grant of $600 per semester, or $1,200 per year, to offset the cost of tuition and books during the two-year program.  The legislation also expands eligibility for the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship to students who complete Middle College.


“This is a program that encourages our best and brightest to get a jump start on their education and compliments the governor’s Drive to 55 to accelerate the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees or certifications,” said Sen. Yager.  “The students in this program are not receiving any deferential treatment.  They are attending high school part time, fulfilling all the requirements, and taking regular college courses.  It is a very rigorous program.  Unfortunately these students do not qualify for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which requires a high school degree.  So, these students have to pay for the program out of their own pockets with the cost factor discouraging many bright students from participating in this program.”


Middle College students are among the most sought-after students in the nation by four-year colleges and universities and typically achieve 100 percent proficiency on high school benchmark exams.  On average, 90 percent of Middle College graduates transfer to a four-year college or university.


The bill now goes to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact.


Senate advances two bills to ensure students get physical activity in schools


The Senate advanced two bills this week which help ensure that students get more physical activity in schools, including the Tom Cronan Physical Education Act which requires each student in elementary school to participate in a physical education class (PE) at least twice a week for a combined total of no less than 60 minutes.  Senate Bill 558, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee, is sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).


Obesity is one of the most pressing health concerns in Tennessee.  The state ranks 49th in the United States in physical inactivity and 47th in obesity.  The percentage of overweight/obese students is highest for 6th graders.


“Evidence shows that children who are physically active and fit tend to perform better in the classroom,” said Sen. Ketron.  “It improves their concentration, cognitive functioning, and self-esteem, not to mention the health benefits by establishing healthy habits at an early age.  It’s time to change the culture of the school to blend academics and PE.”


Under the legislation, the PE class must be taught by a teacher with a physical education endorsement and must meet the needs of students, including those with disabilities.  The legislation also requires local education agencies (LEAs) to verify compliance with the act annually.


The bill is named for the late Dr. Thomas Cronan, who was Professor Emeritus of Exercise Physiology at Carson-Newman College and a lifelong promoter of wellness.  He was the husband of former University of Tennessee Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan, who with Coach Pat Summitt, led the Lady Vols to multiple national basketball championships.


“The Tom Cronan Physical Education bill will make a difference in young people’s lives,” Mrs. Cronan told committee members.  “The facts show one in three of our school children is obese.   Seventy-four percent are not ready to go to the military… One of the things that Coach Summitt taught us is that discipline makes a difference.  I think when we look at our elementary students and what they can do to get better and represent us, not only in the military, but in life, I feel strongly that physical education provides that.”


U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Eden Murrie, a Nashville resident, testified about physical education and obesity as it affects national security.  “We need today’s youth to be ready to successfully serve our nation tomorrow in the armed forces or in a variety of different ways.  As simple as it sounds, PE is a necessary tool for our youth,” she said.


Obesity is the leading medical disqualification in the armed forces with nearly one out of three young people being too overweight to serve.


The PE bill works in conjunction with legislation approved by the full Senate earlier this week clarifying Tennessee’s law regarding school recess requirements.  Senate Bill 662, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), requires a minimum of 130 minutes of physical activity each school week for elementary school students and 90 minutes for middle and high school students.  The legislation provides that physical activity must be at least 15 minutes to qualify as recess to ensure a benefit to the student.  It also ensures that recess does not replace current PE programs.


The bill, which has already passed the House of Representatives, now goes to the governor for his signature.


In Brief…


Elected Attorney General  — A resolution that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG) was approved this week.  Tennessee’s AG is currently appointed by the justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Senate Joint Resolution 57, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), begins the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved by voters, calls for the AG to be elected to a four-year term beginning with the November 2024 general election.  The terms of office would be limited to two.  The resolution also provides that the AG be 30 years of age or older, a citizen of the United States, an attorney duly licensed in Tennessee and a resident of the state for at least five years preceding the election.


The amendment process requires a simple majority by the 110th General Assembly currently in session, and a two-thirds majority in the 111th General Assembly which is elected in 2018, before going to voters in a statewide referendum in 2022.  In order to be adopted, a proposed constitutional amendment must receive one more vote than half the number of votes cast in the gubernatorial election.  State attorneys general are directly elected in 43 states.  Of the remaining seven, six are appointed by the governor or the state legislature.


Protestors / Blocking Emergency Vehicles – Legislation which seeks to deter protestors from blocking first responders who are responding to an emergency has passed 28 to 2 in the Tennessee Senate on final consideration.  The bill comes after recent accounts of emergency vehicles being delayed due to protests.  Senate Bill 902, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), increases the fine for those convicted of blocking emergency vehicles from a Class A to a Class B misdemeanor, elevating the fine from $50 to $200.  “I’m all in favor of citizens’ right to protest, but when it puts other people’s lives in danger it goes too far,” said Senator Bell.


Burdensome Business Restrictions — Legislation that would prevent any local government from establishing “predictive or restrictive scheduling” laws has met final approval in the Senate.  Restrictive scheduling, which has already been adopted in Seattle and San Francisco, requires employers to give workers two weeks’ notice of work schedules, pay employees for schedule changes or cancelled shifts, and provide predictability pay for on-call employees not called into work.  Tennessee has been proactive in getting ahead of harmful, local mandates on business that would have created uncertainty and added costs for Tennessee businesses.  Such practices would also create a patchwork of local labor policies in Tennessee. Senate Bill 262 would especially protect small business owners who often cannot anticipate their needs days in advance because staffing of projects must occur on short notice to meet the needs of their customers.  It is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).


Medicaid / Block Grants — State Senators on Thursday gave approval to a resolution calling on the federal government to give states Medicaid funding in the form of block grants, or similar models, providing them with the ability to make decisions best suited to the unique needs of their citizens.  Senate Joint Resolution 77 further expresses support for grants that allow for patient-centered reforms that increase access to affordable, high-quality private health insurance.  The resolution is sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville).   “It is these block grants that will allow innovative solutions which will drive down costs and allow us to insure more people as money is liberated from the system,” he said.


Ambulance Services — Legislation advanced in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Wednesday to aid local ambulance services in Tennessee by implementing a quarterly coverage assessment similar to the assessment that has prevented catastrophic cuts in hospitals in Tennessee.   Senate Bill 704 would place the assessment in a fund, allowing the state to receive additional federal dollars from Medicaid to be redistributed to the local private and public ambulance services for transporting patients covered by program.  Called the Ground Ambulance Service Provider Assessment Act, the bill is expected to generate approximately $19.6 million in additional federal funds.  The legislation has received support from the State Ambulance Service Association and was passed unanimously in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.  It now travels to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee before going to the Senate floor for a final vote.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston).


Four Unhealthy Practices Drive State’s Top 10 Causes of Death – Four unhealthy practices drive all of the top 10 leading causes of death in Tennessee according to Dr. John J. Dreyzehner who testified before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week.  The “big four” are physical inactivity, excessive caloric intake, tobacco and nicotine addiction and substance abuse disorders.  Dreyzehner said that in addition to being the leading cause of death, the unhealthy practices discourage companies from bringing new business to Tennessee.


Palliative Care – Legislation creating a State Task Force on Palliative Care and Quality of Life in Tennessee was approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee this week.  The purpose of the bill is to promote patient-centered and family-focused palliative care in the state. Palliative care is an approach intended to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing serious or life-threatening illnesses.  It aims to prevent and relieve their suffering by means of early identification, impeccable assessment, and the treatment of their pain, physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and various other ailments.  Senate Bill 1170, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), creates a nine-member task force charged with consulting and advising the Department of Health on matters relative to the establishment, maintenance, operation, and outcome of palliative care initiatives.


Over the last decade, a multitude of studies have shown the benefits of palliative care, including improved quality of life, reduced patient and caregiver burden, and an overall reduction in total health care costs.   Currently, 16 states have laws establishing these Advisory Councils, and an additional seven states introduced comparable bills during their most recent legislative sessions.


Domestic Violence Offenders / Firearm Prohibition Notice — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill ensuring that domestic violence offenders have indisputable notice regarding the prohibition from owning or possessing a firearm.  Defendants who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm under both U.S. and Tennessee laws.  Although this fact is verbally communicated to the defendant upon entering a guilty plea, the notice provided is deficient when compared to the information provided to respondents in Order of Protection cases.  Senate Bill 229, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville),  uses the procedure that already exists for Orders of Protection to ensure that every convicted offender receives and completes a form that further informs the defendant about firearm restrictions and when and how to dispossess firearms.  Offenders with a history of domestic violence are five times more likely to murder an intimate partner when a firearm is present in the home.


Legislative Ethics / Travel — A bill advanced in the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week requiring members of the General Assembly to disclose certain travel expenses paid for by individuals seeking to inform or advise the lawmaker on state public policy issues.  Senate Bill 327, sponsored by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), ensures transparency if a legislator travels at the expense of an individual or organization seeking to influence public policy.


Task Force / Recreation on State Waters —  The full Senate voted on Thursday to create a six-member task force to study issues surrounding the use of non-motorized vessels, such as canoes and kayaks, on state waters.  The purpose of Senate Bill 1335 is to find solutions that allow outfitters and adventurers to enjoy navigating the waters, while protecting and preserving the state’s natural resources, as well as being respectful to property owners.  The groups will report their findings by July 2018.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta).


Drug Use / Needle Exchange — Legislation which aims to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C due to injection drug use has been approved by the full Senate.  Senate Bill 806, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), allows the Tennessee Department of Health to identify and approve nonprofit companies to engage in syringe exchange at no cost to the state.    People who inject drugs not only imperil their own health, but that of their partners and offspring, not to mention the cost of treatment for the diseases.  Needle exchange programs distribute clean needles and safely dispose of used ones, and also generally offer a variety of related services, including referrals to drug treatment and HIV counseling and testing.


Tennessee Public Utility Commission — The name of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) would be changed to the Tennessee Public Utility Commission under legislation that received final Senate approval this week.  The TRA is charged with the responsibility of setting the rates and service standards of privately owned telephone, natural gas, electric, and water utilities.  Senate Bill 747 also redesignates the current TRA directors as Public Utility Commission commissioners.  The move will put Tennessee in line with similar regulatory agencies throughout the nation.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).


Consumers / Spoofing — State Senators gave final approval this week to legislation that creates a consumer protection violation for someone who employs caller identification (ID) spoofing technology with the intent to defraud or cause harm to another person, or to wrongfully obtain anything of value.  Spoofing technology allows a person, when making a call or sending a text message, to change the number so that it appears on the recipient’s caller ID that it is different from the one that is actually being used.  It is often used as part of an attempt to trick someone into giving away valuable personal information so it can be used in fraudulent activity or sold illegally.  Senate Bill 511, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), creates a Class A misdemeanor for spoofing, as well as allowing for spoofing victims and the state’s Attorney General to pursue civil actions against offenders.


Retail Theft – Two bills, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), are advancing in the State Senate which are designed to address Organized Retail Crime (ORC).  It has been estimated that in 2015 alone, Tennessee lost over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lost over $200 million due to return fraud.  “We have a crisis in Tennessee where goods are stolen and then returned to retailers for credit on a gift card,” Briggs said.


Senate Bill 119, approved by the Judiciary Committee this week, and Senate Bill 120 which passed the panel last week, enact the Organized Retail Crime Prevention Act, creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals that return stolen merchandise to receive money or store credit.  The legislation defines organized retail crime and creates an enforcement mechanism.  The offense of theft of property is also expanded to address modern shoplifting devices, helping law enforcement convict the more sophisticated criminal.


Per Capita, Knoxville is first in the nation for card abuse and theft.  Tennessee is one of only 17 states that do not have ORC legislation.


Jail Overcrowding — Legislation which creates a task force to study the best practices and new approaches to the management and coordination of local correctional facilities was approved by the State and Local Government Committee this week.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma).  Senate Bill 708, called the “Comprehensive Local Correctional Enforcement Task Force Act,” seeks to find solutions to the serious overcrowding in local jails. The goals of the task force will be to enhance overall operations of the criminal justice system at the local government level, to ensure that taxpayer money invested in local correctional facilities is used wisely and efficiently, to ensure that the rights of individuals involved in local correctional facilities are protected, and to ensure that such individuals are directed or diverted into appropriate programs that will best protect public safety, reduce recidivism, and provide the best likelihood for those individuals to become productive citizens. The task force must examine the challenges raised by individuals dealing with mental illness or substance abuse problems who may become involved with local law enforcement or correctional facilities.


County Road Relief Act — Legislation which permanently changes the way Tennessee manages its State Aid Road Grant Program to make it easier for counties to access state funds to upgrade, repair, and improve roads was unanimously approved by the full Senate this week.  Senate Bill 700, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), makes permanent the County Road Relief Act of 2015 which allows a county to use state highway aid for a project as long as the county contributes at least two percent of the approved project cost or provides in-kind work as approved by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.  The law is set to expire in July.  Before passage of the County Road Relief Act of 2015, a 25 percent local match was required by local governments to receive funding through the State Highway Aid System, an obstacle which was too great for many of Tennessee’s more distressed counties.  The law was modeled after the County Bridge Relief Act of 2014, which lowered the match to allow local governments to access unused funds in Tennessee’s State Aid Bridge Grant Program.  That program has allowed counties to access unused funds to improve bridges which had fallen into disrepair.


Addison’s Disease — The Senate approved a minor House amendment and sent to the governor legislation which authorizes school personnel to inject medication for adrenal insufficiency to a student with Addison’s Disease who is experiencing an adrenal crisis. Addison’s disease is a life-threatening illness that prevents a person’s body from creating hormones that help it respond to stress.  An adrenal crisis can be triggered by an injury, surgery, infection or emotional stress.  Death may occur without immediate treatment.  Currently, only school nurses are authorized to administer these injections, but under Senate Bill 117, any willing school personnel receiving the proper training may be permitted to aid a student in an adrenal crisis on a volunteer basis.  The bill was brought to the legislature by the Adzima Family and their son, Landon, who testified before the committee about the student’s near-death experience while at a wrestling tournament. The coaches saw the importance of being able to help in this kind of emergency situation in the future but current policy prohibited their assistance. In the absence of a school nurse, there is no backup plan to aid these students when a crisis occurs.  The legislation is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville).

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