Monthly Archives: August 2014

Haslam says he’ll ‘probably’ submit a Medicaid expansion plan this fall

Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that he will “probably” submit a proposal for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee to federal officials sometime this fall, though giving no specifics.

From the Chattanooga Times-Free Press:
“I think we’ll probably go to them sometime this fall with a plan … that we think makes sense for Tennessee,” the Republican told reporters
Haslam’s statements on Thursday came in response to reporters’ questions following a Legislative Plaza rally by the state NAACP and other advocates.

The 40 to 50 participants castigated the governor and Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the state Senate speaker, for refusing to expand the program.

“Governor, do the right thing, do the moral thing,” urged Walter Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign, who joined Tennessee NAACP President Gloria Sweet-Love and other advocates in a rally on the Legislative Plaza.

Lower-income people are suffering as are hospitals, which had anticipated the money, advocates said.

Asked by reporters about the comments, Haslam revealed he spoke earlier this week with Burwell and was already working to schedule a meeting with her.

Haslam said what’s changed is his administration can now follow the experience of other states where governors, many of them Republicans, have obtained approval for waivers of traditional Medicaid rules.

“One of the things we’re able to do now is look and say well they said yes to this with this state, no to that … so we’re kind of learning through that whole process as well,” Haslam said.

From The Tennessean:
The governor said he wants to do what “works financially for the state long term.” He said he talked to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell by phone this week and hopes to talk to her in person in Washington as soon as a meeting can be arranged.

…Craig Becker, president of the Tennessee Hospital Association, (said), “We’re very pleased if it’s true. We are very anxious to see what the plan is and see if we can help him to get it approved.”

Haslam made the comments to reporters after the state chapter of the NAACP and other advocates for health care staged an event urging the governor to act. About 50 protesters gathered on the War Memorial Plaza across the street from the state Capitol.

…Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said she hopes action follows the latest comments from Haslam.

“It’s urgent that the governor submit a serious plan to accept federal funds to expand health coverage for Tennesseans,” Johnson said. “The consequences of delay are devastating for both the health-care infrastructure we all reply upon and for hard-working Tennesseans.

“As we wait for a plan, Tennesseans lose $2.7 million a day. We can’t get that back. Meanwhile, other governors of both parties have implemented plans that strengthen their states and give their citizens the peace of mind only health coverage can provide.”

Pennsylvania on Thursday became the 27th state to expand its Medicaid program. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed to a plan that lets private insurers administer Medicaid-funded coverage that adheres to Medicaid’s existing rules.

Further, from WPLN:
“It’s nice to say, ‘let’s put politics aside.’ But at the end of the day, you also have to get it passed the legislature. So you better be able to get something that you can get 50 votes in one house, and 17 in the other,” Haslam told reporters Thursday.

Haslam’s announcement to send federal officials the state’s own expansion proposal follows the governor’s request that U.S. Health and Human Service officials send Tennessee a recommended course of action.

“They never really came back with anything, so we’re proceeding,” Haslam said.

Bell, Gresham echo RNC attacks on American history course, seek state investigation

Advanced Placement U.S. History could become a new education battleground in Tennessee after a pair of Republican state senators have alleged the course leaves out key founding fathers, principles of the Declaration of Independence and iconic American figures, according to The Tennessean.

The allegations, the newspaper says, mirror attacks waged by conservatives nationally. And it comes a year after the same two senators took on social studies textbooks they said were biased, a push that resulted in lawmakers getting new say on who sits on the state’s textbook commission.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, have requested the Tennessee State Board of Education to conduct a review of new framework and materials used in the teaching of Advanced Placement U.S. History.

AP courses, overseen by The College Board, a private company that manages the SAT test, are elective high school classes that cover a range of subjects, allowing students to earn college credit if they score high enough on end-of-year exams.

The Republican National Committee earlier this month came out against the new framework The College Board has turned to for AP U.S. History — “APUSH,” as it is commonly called. Changes are reflected in final exams for the first time this year, but the RNC has called for a one-year delay. A column in the National Review earlier this week contends it will “force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective.”

“There are many concerns with the new APUSH framework, not the least of which is that it pushes a revisionist interpretation of historical facts,” echoed Gresham in a statement on Tuesday. “The items listed as required knowledge have some inclusions which are agenda-driven, while leaving out basic facts that are very important to our nation’s history.”

College Board officials have rejected such charges. But the two Tennessee senators want the state board of education to provide a public forum to let parents speak on the matter.

David Sevier, deputy director for the state board of education, said the board would likely follow the request. What the review would look like is unclear. He said the special hearing would likely be carved into the board’s regularly meeting schedule. It meets next in October.

Gresham and Bell — copying much of the language used in a resolution approved by the RNC — have alleged that the new AP U.S. History framework included “little or no discussion of the founding fathers and the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” Moreover, they say, the framework negatively portrays settlers’ explorations of America, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.

The Commercial Appeal notes that the Bell-Gresham letter says “members of the General Assembly have received an increasing number of messages from constituents” about AP courses, including ‘complaints of inappropriate materials, inaccurate textbooks and revisionist history’.” Further:

Neither Bell nor Gresham directly responded Tuesday to a reporter’s request to review the complaints, but the Senate Republican Caucus’s press liaison said “the vast majority are from telephone calls to their offices,” that Bell routinely deletes email after answering it and that Gresham is concerned about a “breach of privacy” regarding release of email from constituents.

James Teague, superintendent of Fayette County Schools in Gresham’s home county, said his office has “not received a single complaint or concern” about AP U.S. history offered in his school system and that Gresham had not contacted him about the issue. State Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said her agency has received no formal complaints either.

Judge dismisses charges against gun rights advocate

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Randall Wyatt has dismissed charges against Leonard Embody, a Second Amendment advocate who walked through downtown Nashville with a cased rifle equipped with a silencer, reports The Tennessean.

Embody had been charged with unlawful possession of a weapon after police said he walked in body armor with an AR-15 rifle with an attached silencer near the Historic Metro Courthouse in July 2013.

Embody has long said he had a federal permit to carry the silencer that was cited as the reason he was charged. In an Aug. 15 court hearing, Metro police admitted they saw the permit in the case where the rifle and silencer were being stored.

After the dismissal, Embody said he planned to return to downtown Nashville with the same type of weapon to hand out leaflets like he did last year.

“I hope the cops don’t repeat their illegal show of force against me,” he said in a email.

While Wyatt dismissed Embody’s case and ruled he wasn’t obligated to show his federal gun permit, the judge’s order still took Embody to task for his actions during the incident.

The judge said Embody could have prevented the entire incident by simply telling authorities he was licensed to carry the weapon. He said Metro police “acted reasonably given the circumstances of the situation.”

Two fired, manager resigns after two teen suicides at DCS facility

Two security officers at the Mountain View Youth Development Center were fired and Steve Harrison, manager of the Department of Children’s Services facility, resigned Tuesday following release of an independent review prompted by two teenagers committing suicide, reports the Tennessean.

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth detailed widespread problems at the facility in Jefferson County, including delays in giving kids medication, a failure to conduct regular required checks on children, poor staff training and severe staff shortages.

DCS Commissioner Jim Henry pledged he would expedite efforts to hire and train staff at the East Tennessee facility, which currently has 30 unfilled positions and requires existing staff to regularly work overtime to oversee about 114 teenage boys. Henry said he would reach out to other states and experts for advice in revamping the state’s current approach to delinquent youth, promising to move “away from a correctional-style approach and more closely towards a therapeutic approach.”

On July 13, 16-year-old Brandon Greene fatally hanged himself in his room as other teens left to shower.

Greene had been on suicide watch three times before, once after trying to poison himself by drinking ink from two pens. Another time he was found lying on the floor with a shoestring around his neck. But four days after his last suicide attempt, he was taken off suicide watch. Two days later, he hanged himself with a T-shirt wrapped around a laundry bag cord attached to a metal shelf above his bed. The report noted Greene had been prescribed psychotropic medication before his death, but never took it because the facility had not yet obtained it.

The report found it took as long as two to three weeks for some teens to receive prescription drugs at the facility.

Three weeks after Greene’s death, on Aug. 1, an 18-year-old identified by his father as Frank Cass Jr. hanged himself with a bed sheet from a metal shelf unit in his room.

Cass had been placed in a segregation unit after he had been involved in three assault incidents in the prior week, the report said. In the two months before his death, staff had reported eight incidents involving assaults by Cass and use of confinements and restraints. On the day of his death, staff were supposed to check on him every 15 minutes. Instead, staff waited an hour and 45 minutes to check on him. During that time, he took his own life.

Both teens were taking Zoloft, an antidepressant whose side effects include “violent behavior, mania or aggression, which can all lead to suicide,” the report said. It noted that staff members at Mountain View were unaware of the types of medications the teens were prescribed and did not know their potential side effects.

The report noted that 57 percent of all teens aged 13-18 living at the facility were receiving psychotropic medications, “an awfully high number” that is more comparable to a psychiatric facility for teens than a detention center, said Paul DeMuro, a national expert and consultant in juvenile justice.

Haslam stacking the deck in appointments to criminal justice task force?

In keeping with a burgeoning national trend toward criminal justice reform, Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed a task force to evaluate the state’s prison sentencing practices. But the the Commercial Appeal reports that a notable lack of criminal defense attorneys in a group largely comprised of law enforcement and prosecutors has left some attorneys with doubts about the intended efficacy of the group.

In his Aug. 14 statement, Haslam said the group would be tasked with examining the state’s more than 20-year-old sentencing structure and making recommendations about eliminating inconsistencies or discrepancies “that compromise public safety” by June 2015.

While activists, lawmakers, and even U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder have called for reforms that focus on a departure from America’s long-standing reliance on incarceration over rehabilitation, the makeup of Haslam’s group suggests other priorities, critics say.

Only one person on the committee, Cannon County Public Defender Gerald Melton, currently works at the defense side of the table. Police chiefs, judges, sheriffs and district attorneys account for 18 of its members, who serve alongside other lawmakers and a victim’s rights advocate.

There appear to be no ex-offenders or advocacy groups for ex-offenders represented. The group is also about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican, in a state where 44 percent of its 30,349 inmates are black.

“An entire class of people is being shut out,” said Memphis defense attorney Michael Working. “That’s not just the voice of defense attorneys, that’s the voice of the defendants. That’s the voice of families who have people stuck in the most oppressive penal system in the world.”

Asked for comment, a representative of Haslam’s office deferred to Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield, who also sits on the committee.

“The task force is made up of individuals with extensive knowledge and experience in the fields of sentencing and recidivism and represent communities across the state,” Schofield said. “As the task force delves deeper into the issues surrounding sentencing and recidivism, we anticipate hundreds of Tennesseans being consulted to bring even more great minds to the table.”

New lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Three women who were victims of a serial rapist in Memphis have filed a new lawsuit in state court alleging city and county officials were negligent by allowing thousands of rape kits to go untested for years. The action comes as they drop similar claims in federal court.

Attorney Daniel Lofton, who is representing the women, told The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/1AR0IBa) that the new suit would avoid the “shakier ground” in federal court, which doesn’t have the same legal precedent for the alleged constitutional violations.

He said the new lawsuit seeks relief under a state law that allows people to sue government officials for negligence.

“The city is a couple of light years away from the best practices that we expect our experts to be able to prove are being used by a majority of comparable jurisdictions,” Lofton said.

County Attorney Marcy Ingram the county does not comment on pending litigation.

City spokeswoman Dewanna Lofton said in a statement that the city would seek dismissal of lawsuit.

In an emailed statement, city spokeswoman Dewanna Lofton said, “…While we will not comment on pending litigation, please note that the Plaintiffs dismissed their own suit in the face of the City’s (and other defendants’) motions to dismiss because we believe they accurately realized they had no viable Federal claims. The City will be seeking dismissal of the State claims, as well.”

On Knox County’s ongoing government corruption trial: Nine years of ripping off taxpayers

While Fred Sisk was courting voters to win the Knox County trustee’s job, he was secretly helping fleece taxpayers, according to testimony presented Tuesday in an ongoing corruption trial and reported by the News Sentinel’s Jamie Satterfield.

Sisk admitted Tuesday a host of financial crimes, from knowingly paying Delbert Morgan for work he didn’t do to taking taxpayer money to which he was not entitled to giving former Trustee Mike Lowe a kickback from his illegal gains.

He justified it all with this statement: “I was doing what I could to get elected.”

Morgan, 58, is standing trial in Knox County Criminal Court on allegations he was a phantom employee who collected $200,000 in pay and benefits he did nothing to earn — aside from being a longtime friend of Lowe and allegedly giving Lowe a kickback of his own.

The trial, which began last week, has exposed what prosecutors say was a plot, masterminded by Lowe, among a den of thieves who worked under him to steal taxpayer money.

So far, two former trustee staffers — Rhonda Jan Thomas and John Haun — have confessed collecting cash for comp time to which they were not entitled. Haun also confessed a pill addiction fed by Thomas, who he deemed his chief supplier of prescription painkillers.

Prosecutor Bill Bright badgered a confession out of former staffer Sam Harb that he too was a willing participant in the plot, padding Morgan’s paycheck with extras such as overtime and bogus “years of service” pay at Lowe’s request.

Then came Sisk, who quietly confessed committing crimes.

Neither Sisk nor Harb have been charged. Their status as state witnesses indicates they either won’t be or have verbal plea deals. Although Thomas and Haun are under indictment, they willingly gave up their right against self-incrimination, signaling a deal may be in the works for their cases.

Lowe faces trial later as does another alleged ghost employee, Ray Mubarak.

Add to this alleged conspiracy a later one involving Sisk’s successor, John J. Duncan III, to give out bonuses not earned, and one thing becomes clear: Taxpayers have been ripped off for nine years under three different trustees elected by Knox County voters.

Charlie Brown’s first campaign speech: He’s for ‘common sense,’ not Common Core

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Brown gave his first campaign speech Tuesday, reports WATE-TV, declaring — among other things — that he’s for “common sense” education and not the Common Core that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is pushing.

Brown took to the steps of the old Roane County courthouse Tuesday to give his first campaign speech, but campaign staffers denied questions from the media.

“It’s time to elect a governor just like you all who understands your issues, your struggles and your problems,” Brown said.

In his prepared remarks, Brown said he is the candidate who can relate to the working class.

Brown recently retired and now works on a farm in his hometown of Oakdale in Morgan County.

“If you struggle to make a house payment or a car payment, I’m your man,” Brown said.

According to his website, Brown supports raising the minimum wage and wants to increase the speed limit on certain highways to 80 miles per hour.

Brown also said he is against Gov. Haslam’s educational policies.

“He wants common core for education,” Brown said. “I want to restore just plain common sense to education.”

Members of Brown’s own party admit Brown is an unknown candidate, albeit with a famous name.

“It is an uphill battle and we know that,” Knox County Democratic Party Chair Linda Haney said.

Haney said the majority of Knox County Democrats voted for former Sullivan County Mayor John McKamey in part because he was the only Democratic candidate to do much campaigning in Knox County.

Haney said she wishes Brown had campaigned more here but is looking forward to meeting him when he visits on the campaign trail.

Anti-UAW group moves to set up alternative union at Chattanooga VW plant

A group of employees at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant is developing plans to set up an alternative to the United Auto Workers Union, reports the Chattanooga TFP.

“It’s totally legal,” said VW employee Mike Burton, an anti-UAW leader at the plant. He said the group hopes to gather enough signatures to have an election for the American Council of Employees.

It would counter UAW Local 42, which the Detroit-based union set up in June with hopes of gaining enough members that VW will recognize it.

The ACE website said its group is in a hurry because it believes VW will announce as early as today that it will give office space to Local 42 in the plant.

Scott Wilson, a VW spokesman, had no comment.

Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, discounted the independent unionizing attempt, adding that it would differ greatly from Local 42.

“What does an anti-union union offer?” he asked.

Casteel has said that the UAW already has arrived at a consensus with VW.

“Upon Local 42 signing up a meaningful portion of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga work force, we’re confident the company will recognize Local 42 by dealing with it as a members’ union that represents those employees who join the local,” he said.

Legislators hold hearing on TennCare dealings with ‘the affordable cluster act’

Just days before TennCare leaders head to court over accusations that state failures have created months-long delays in coverage, the agency’s director faced questions from lawmakers about the unfinished computer system that led to those delays, reports the Chattanooga TFP.

TennCare Director Darin Gordon told lawmakers Tuesday that nearly a year after the new state’s new Medicaid eligibility system was supposed to be completed, the contractors building the system have not finished even the first of four testing phases.

The unfinished system, called the “Tennessee Eligibility Determination System,” or TEDS, was supposed to begin handling Tennesseans’ Medicaid enrollment last October under the Affordable Care Act.

…State lawmakers questioned Gordon during a joint fiscal review committee meeting, pressing him for details about the $35.7 million contract with Northrup Grumman to create the computer system.

It was the first time Tennessee lawmakers have publicly questioned TennCare about the issue, which began to surface early this year.

Gordon said he was frustrated with Northrop Grumman, and said the state so far has paid the company only $4.7 million for what has actually been accomplished, he told lawmakers.

“I’ve lost some faith in their ability to accurately predict when this system will be ready to go,” Gordon said.

But he added that late federal guidance on how to create the new enrollment systems — the “most significant change in Medicaid eligibility since the beginning of the program” — contributed to the delay. Some rules came as late as July before the October deadline, he said.

“These are complex systems being implemented in a very tight time frame,” Gordon said, adding that other states have faced similar struggles.

Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, asked how the delays were affecting hospitals, saying that she is receiving calls from hospitals, doctors and others complaining about losing money over the delays.

“We cannot bury our heads in the sand and say this system being delayed a year … that has not had some impact on our health care infrastructure,” said Gilmore.

Gordon said that unlike other states, TennCare did not have an application backlog.

“That’s not what we hear in our communities and neighborhoods,” Gilmore replied.

Other lawmakers appeared sympathetic to TennCare’s situation, blaming the federal government for its own delays. Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said the “federal government put a burden on states to do this,” and called the pending lawsuit a “shame.”

Committee Chairman Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, criticized the federal health law, saying “maybe we should call it the affordable cluster act.”