April 28, 2009
With committee meetings not amounting to much at this point in the session, I started my day in the Senate chamber. It didn't take long for a few senators to take issue with a controversial bill about...Christmas.
Christmas being the state's most divisive issue (forget the budget, guns and abortion), Democratic Senators Joan Bray and Rita Days of St. Louis County took the opportunity to try out some new material from their comedy routine to lampoon Republican-sponsored HB 128, which would officially change the legislature's Winter break to "Christmas Break."
To illustrate their point, Days and Bray suggested the chamber adopt amendments officially recognizing: Cinco de Mayo, Bray's birthday (September 16th), Groundhog's Day, Pioneer Day, St. Patrick's Day, and Yom Kippur. Days said there's a long list of other days to recognize and to expect more amendments from her.
Bray also suggested Rosh Hashanah and dazzled the crowded gallery with a story about her beloved cat named, "Rosh Hashanah," who used to chase an aluminum foil ball.
The bill did not pass and will face a host of amendments when, or if, it makes a second Senate appearance.
April 21, 2009
Not a creature was stirring at 8 this morning, except my distinguished colleague, Lauren Mickler. We both got to the chambers when the NBC/Senate bells rang at the stroke of 10am.
My story today focused on a new program requiring mortgage brokers in Missouri to register with the state's Department of Finance. The state will assign them a unique ID that will then be printed on every piece of paper, business card and advertisement they touch related to mortgages.
The legislature was in a hurry to get this through since otherwise HUD will enforce its own regulations starting July 30. Those requirements would include fingerprints and credit checks for every employee responsible for lending people money for mortgages. The new federal guidelines are focused on preventing another lending crisis because of fraud on the part of both lenders and borrowers.
Although Missouri lawmakers understand the need to prevent HUD from regulating the state, they weren't competing to be recognized for floor time to praise the new system. In fact, the bill's Senate Sponsor, Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, wasn't shy about expressing his disdain for the federal government's actions, even calling his bill, "sledgehammer legislation." He said while lenders in big cities in California and New York handed out mortgages like they were candy, most Missouri brokers acted responsibly.
In the end, both chambers passed HB 382 and will send it to the Governor's desk for final approval. It was passed on an emergency vote, so it will take effect as soon as Nixon's ink dries.
The mortgage industry continually finds new ways to lend. Maybe the fear of their ID number showing up on a "most wanted" list will keep them from approving half-million dollar mortgages for 20-something grad students like myself.
April 14, 2009
Today marked my first feature. There was no cake or confetti, but it got me pretty jazzed.
The story was a mix of the personal, business, and legislative factors that shaped proposed autism laws (or the lack thereof) this session.
Molly Schad is the mom of an 8 year old boy named Harry who has been denied by United Health Care repeatedly for ABA treatment. The family has spent over $115,000 in savings and borrowed money. She said they were prescribed the treatment by doctors, and paid for it out of pocket because they had no other options and it is the only thing that worked for Harry's condition. At this point they have no more money or capital to pay for additional treatment. The Schad family just switched to Blue Cross and are hoping to get approval this time around, although Molly didn't seem very hopeful that would happen.
I also covered the perspective of lawmakers on both sides of the issue. Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, introduced several bills related to autism. The bills addressed both the educational and medical aspects of ABA coverage. As a lifelong educator, Lampe would like to see teachers receive extra training to deal with autism in an educational setting (a professional development program which lost funding in the budget process), and mandate the coverage of ABA treatment by private insurance companies. I also spoke to Republican House Speaker's communications director, Kristen Blanchard, who said although the House Health Policy and Rules Committee chairmen were directed to tie up the bill, the Speaker was actually the one behind them being stalled. To further complicate matters, the Speaker's wife works with an autism organization in his home district. Blanchard says although he killed the bills for now, he might bring them back in the future.
After the legislation was effectively blocked in the House and Senate, the House Rules Committee chairman, Rep. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, was still sending letters to parents who made weekly trips to the Capitol to testify about the hardships they've encountered due to the lack of coverage. The letters said legislators were just fixing a few things and the bill should be back on track in no time.
It's not yet clear if the legislation will move or if it is permanently stalled. In the meantime, parents and autism advocates are in overdrive.
April 7, 2009
Well it turned out to be a very busy, very interesting day. I came in to work on my feature about autism legislation. Disclaimer: This post is a recap of today's events and the tease for a longer feature including interviews next week.
As I wrote a while back, autism is a hot topic this session. The numbers are staggering, the effects are often devastating, and the parents are persistent. My day took a bit of a detour when I started asking questions, and the official story about who was responsible for killing the bill, HB 357, promptly began to unravel.
As a brief background, the chair of the House Health Policy Committee, Dr. Robert Cooper, R-Camdenton, scheduled several hearings and worked on a number bills focused on insuring autistic children. More specifically, coverage of applied behavior analysis (ABA). The Senate also took up measures dealing with this same issue. The committee hearings were complete with emotionally and financially bankrupt parents talking about the hardships imposed on them by insurance companies, and insurance lobbyists rattling off the maximum amount of premium increases that should be considered a prohibitive factor in passing legislation (lobbyists say the price hike rings in at 2.5%, in case you were curious...although, the bill's sponsor tells me the actual cost would be 0.4-0.7%).
After much work on the part of committee members, bill sponsors and families dealing with autism, the bill was summarily sent back from the House Rules Committee. The chair, Rep. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, told Cooper requested it back, but other Rules members said otherwise.
Much more occurred after that today, and I will post the full details next week along with my feature.
Advocates and opponents are passionate about this issue and I hope to do it justice in my coverage. There seems to be a lot of frustration on the side of legislators who want to help, but are constrained by the rules (unspoken and otherwise) of political engagement...and perhaps lobbying efforts. Also frustrated were parents I talked to who were under the impression that the measure was still slated to move this session.
Why were the parents lead to believe the bill is still moving? What motivation would lawmakers have for killing a seemingly popular measure that guarantees insurance for autism treatments? Who has an interest in stalling the bill--even for just one session? Where do families go from here?
I will address these questions and more in my upcoming feature.
March 31, 2009
It's been two weeks since I've walked the hallowed, marble hallways of the Capitol building. Today there were tables and tables of food, crafts sales in the rotunda, and more gun bills.
In the House Ag-Business Committee, there were several bills discussed today dealing with weapons (e.g., guns, mace, nunchucks....okay, not nunchucks).
My main story focused on HB 875, which will allow gun-wearing Missourians to travel through every city, county, and municipality in the state without fear of breaking the law. In other words, Rep. Scott Largent, R-Clinton, asked the legislature to wipe out all local laws restricting the open carrying and display of guns. He said there are constitutional rights afforded to gun owners and local governments do not, and should not, have the authority to restrict the way they carry their weapons. Largent said the proposal started with a case where a man was arrested for driving his motorcycle, wearing a gun on his hip, through a county where openly carrying firearms is illegal. He told the committee that current laws are encroaching on citizens' rights and making criminals out of people who believe they're abiding by the law.
After the hearing, I talked to a Sheriff Deputy reservist who spoke in favor of the bill. When I asked if most law enforcement would support a law permitting all gun owners to wear weapons anywhere not prohibited by state law, he said he had heard nothing but support for the measure. In addition, he told me all of the previous resistance has come from municipalities.
Apparently opposing municipality leaders were present at the hearing, but chose not to speak.
I also talked to Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, and she told me she would oppose the bill if it makes it to the Senate. She said she'd rather someone wear a gun on their hip to being "sneaky," She also said a law stripping local governments of the power to decide local gun laws would be a mistake.
According to lobbyists working on the bill, it looks like HB 875 will most likely make it out of committee for the first time, but will probably face opposition in the Senate. Largent told me if it doesn't make it to the floor as a stand-alone, he will seriously consider attaching it to a bill that's moving through this session.
It will be interesting to see what support or opposition appears for this bill. Although it probably has a slim chance of making it through both chambers as a stand-alone measure, there is a distinct possibility Largent will try to push it through as an amendment.
March 17, 2009
Happy St. Patrick's Day and Missouri Legislature Spring Break! I spent this holiday--of sorts--in a virtually empty Capitol building, on an 80-degree March day. I can feel your sympathy...and just know it means the world to me.
More importantly, President Obama is proposing that private insurance companies start picking up the tab for veterans getting treated at VA facilities with service-connected injuries. In other words, for vets who sustained a TBI or other severe injury in the line of duty, the insurance provided by their (or a spouse's) employer would be required to write a check for the services. The new plan is estimated to save the VA $540 million, but has left many legislators and vet groups unhappy.
I talked to the Missouri American Legion Department Commander, Victor Stragliati, and he said that although he can afford insurance, there are many vets who depend on the services offered through the VA for health care, basic and otherwise. He told me that the new plan is unacceptable since the returning military members have been injured while serving the country, not as private citizens. This being the case, he believes it is the duty of the VA to offer their services as they have in the past, so disabled vets can return without fear of losing insurance or not being able to pay their premiums.
Rep. David Day, R-Dixon, chairs the House Veterans Committee and he said last night he started receiving calls from concerned vets and related groups. Apparently they are outraged, arguing that the government expects them to put themselves in harm's way, but not take full responsibility for subsequent health care costs. Day told me he needs to see more information on the plan, but after speaking with constituents, veteran friends, and veterans groups, he sides with the people who have served in the military and receive treatment through the VA. For now, it looks like they want the system to stay the same.
President Obama hasn't implemented the plan yet and is in talks with groups like the American Legion to explore other options. With so many troops slated to come home over the next two years, this will become an increasingly important issue, especially given the much talked about funding shortage at the VA. It will also be interesting to see how this plan will work with Obama's universal health care proposal. I'm guessing this won't be the last we hear of the issue.
March 10, 2009
In keeping with tradition, I will share my hours for today: 8 A.M. - 10 P.M. This is serving as my official time card, and I should be cashing in at double time-and-a-half soon! (For those of you kind enough to think I'm serious, this is an unpaid position...although it pays even bigger learning dividends than money could ever buy. That was for my boss).
Today was a series of unfortunate events and missteps that turned into a really good story. I started out, per usual, in the Senate Health Committee, but there was nary a bill of interest that could be reported. So, it was onto the Senate where a bill allowing St. Louis firefighters to live outside city limits was going to be heard. This second story-seeking expedition started at 10 A.M. and officially ended tonight at 6:30 PM, with the bill never being brought up.
However, Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, must have known that I was in desperate need of a good story and decided to attach his rejected red light camera bill as an amendment to the Senate Transportation omnibus bill. With so many projects already loaded on, what was one more? Not too much apparently, since the Senate voted in a strong voice vote to attach the amendment. There were only two senators to speak against the bill and it sounded like they were also the only ones to vote against it. Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis County, voiced her opposition, saying that the cameras are important for saving lives on Missouri roads. All other members present gave hearty "ayes" to the measure that will bar red light camera fines unless the driver has been positively identified and that a traffic violation has undoubtedly occurred.
In his supportive zeal, Sen. Patrick Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, recounted a story in which his grandfather received a ticket and fine for a traffic violation. The only problem was that his grandfather was sick in the hospital, and the Senator was the one who had driven his Lincoln around a stopped school bus. Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, alluded to occasionally running red lights and told Lembke she would have to start wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses with the identification policy. The body also heard from Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, who railed against the use of red light cameras as a money making scheme that is more concerned about filling municipalities' coffers than saving lives. To illustrate his point, Scott pointed to the Hazelwood, MO which raked in $1.3 million last year from red light camera fines alone.
The moral of the story is that derailed bills can always make a comeback, just like my day.
March 3, 2009
Looong day! Walked in the door around 8 A.M. and am heading out at the stroke of 7 P.M. I believe this is what is commonly referred to as "the glamorous life."
Republican Senator Tom Dempsey, introduced his plan in the Senate Health Committee again this year to insure more than 200,000 Missourians that right now go without coverage. The problem is that many of the same people seek treatment in hospital emergency rooms and can never pay the bill. The state and federal government then pick up most of the check for unpaid services. In Dempsey's bill, he redirects a large amount of that money to providing insurance for low-income Missourians who aren't poor enough for Medicaid and not rich enough to buy private insurance.
No opponents of the bill testified in committee. In fact, there were several hospital and insurance company representatives that heartily supported it. While this might look strange on the surface, the plan would ensure people seek preventative and primary health service and not run up the debt of hospitals, which are required to treat them at emergency rooms (at the very least, stabilize them). This measure might also take pressure off small businesses that can't afford to lose employees, but also can't afford their healthcare costs. In this program, their employees could very well be eligible to receive steeply subsidized coverage, and keep their jobs.
I talked to Republican Rep. Rob Shaaf is a doctor and chairman of the House Healthcare Transformation Committee that effectively killed the bill last year. He told me he has major concerns about forcing working taxpayers to foot the bill for fellow Missourians, and also wants changes to hospital expansion provisions. He could potentially act as the gatekeeper again this year.
There are several other bills related to expanding healthcare in Missouri that could also come into play later. This seems to be a hot topic with the federal government also gearing up to increase health coverage.
The stage is set for more action this year, with many eyes watching and depending on the outcome.
February 24, 2009
This morning I went to the House Health Committee. It was a packed house with what seemed to be every health care employee, lobbyist and witness in Jefferson City. The committee is currently hearing testimony about several bills aimed at autism. The central issue is that even though many families have private insurance, their children with autism are not covered for treatments prescribed by doctors. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA ) is one of the primary forms of autism treatment, but is ongoing and therefore expensive. One mother was moved to tears while telling committee members about her child's struggle with autism and the advances he's made through ABA. Another Missouri mom said her son's IQ went from 65 to 120 over a two year course of treatment.
Insurance companies take issue with covering the cost-prohibitive treatment and resist changes, regardless of reported effects. Depending on the company, ABA can be labeled as "experimental," "educational," or a variety of other things. Given its non-medical designation, parents are expected to fork over the cash for treatments. The insurance companies also say changes would lead to a blanket increase in premiums.
One interesting note is that children on state Medicaid have full access to autism services.
The issue of autism is hot topic in the Capitol right now. Over the past two decades rates of diagnosis have gone from 1/10,000 to 1/150. With so many families affected, this issue is quickly rising to prominence in the legislature.
February 17, 2009:
I spent today getting ahead, falling behind, and then catching up again. Apparently the recording equipment wasn't as reliable as I'd hoped. So, everything is even tonight at 6 P.M.!
This morning I sat in on the Senate Health Committee and listened to testimony about a few interesting bills. The main bill today was SB 229, which will require all hospitals to report every nursing staff member (e.g., RN, CNA, LPN) in a public posting on every floor. I called Kansas City nurse, Mary Nash, who testified and she told me she has seen ICU nurses caring for up to three patients single-handedly. On med-surg floors, she said that number can climb to ten patients. With recent stories about Dennis Quaid's newborn twins receiving nearly fatal doses of medication and ER patients dying in waiting rooms, this seemed to be a timely bill. While this appeared logical and compelling, I spoke with Sen. Jane Cunningham of St. Louis County and she said there doesn't seem to be a need in Missouri for potentially onerous reporting standards. The bottom line seems to be that lawmakers want to pressure hospital administrators to not under staffing hospitals.
The committee also heard bills about nursing standards and an educational bill of rights for Missouri foster children. As a side note, committee members continue to surprise me at how well they play together...most of the time.
February 10, 2009:
Another early start with the Senate Health Committee at 8 A.M. In the hearing, we heard testimony about bills ranging from autism to STD prevention. My main story is the new bill from Senator Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, which will mandate all Missouri public schools send information about HPV and cervical cancer to families of female sixth-graders. Senator Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, voiced some objections that the bill doesn't have strong enough language regarding abstinence. After speaking with Justus, it looks like the bill will stay as is. However, she is removing a provision for vaccinations being offered by school nurses.
Another interesting development was when Senator Justus tried to attach an amendment for childcare subsidy funding to SB 4, which will provide a Quality Rating System for licensed childcare facilities. Justus said she wanted to attach her amendment since SB 4 is likely to pass and all there should be funding for childcare before they are rated. The amendment was ultimately voted down, except for another vote from Senator Cunningham.
February 3, 2009:
Today started at 7:40, getting to the Capitol bright and early for a Senate committee hearing on childcare facilities in the state. Senate President Pro-Tem, Charlie Shields, was introducing a bill that creates ranking system for preschools. Currently, there are no rankings for childcare providers, so this new tool would ostensibly help Missouri parents select the best programs.
In the hearing, Senator Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, introduced legislation that funds Missouri residents who get in accidents and suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Stouffer discussed his wife's experience with TBI and the committee heard testimony from Richard Westbecker, a St. Louis city resident who was rehabilitated through the state-funded program. Westbecker now works at Schnuck's Grocery Store, earns a salary, and has private insurance.
The testimony this morning highlighted how much people care about their fields and the populations they serve.