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  • Writer's pictureState Rep. Kelly Keisling

Tennessee General Assembly: Addressing Critical Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

House Members addresses critical health needs during Covid-19 pandemic

As the number of Covid-19 cases continue to rise across our state, House Members work to identify innovative solutions to help our health care professionals meet the evolving health needs of all Tennesseans.

Before recessing last week, members approved a new $150 million fund to combat health and safety issues related to the pandemic. Additionally, a combined $26.5 million investment will strengthen the state’s mental health and health care safety networks. This investment includes $19 million for the state’s health care safety network, bringing its balance to $31 million. The budget also invests $7.5 million to support children’s behavioral and mental health services and $3 million to expand the School Based Behavioral Health Liaisons across Tennessee.

The House also passed a series of initiatives to support our health care system during the Covid-19 pandemic. They include:

  • House Bill 1175: Reimburses emergency first responders for life-saving services provided to Tennesseans, especially in our rural communities, through a $7 million investment.

  • House Bill 1699: Protects existing tele-health arrangements that do not require an existing doctor-patient relationship. The measure also creates a structure for all providers to use telemedicine with established patients who have been seen in their practice in the last 18 months for follow-up care at home, in the work place or other mobile locations as long as the provider has access to relevant public records. Additionally, House Bill 1699 includes a provision for payment parity among doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants because providers and hospitals should be equally reimbursed by insurance companies.

  • House Bill 2138: Requires TennCare to provide notice to the House and Senate prior to making reduced payments on a pro-rated basis so amounts held in the Nursing Home Assessment Fund are not exceeded.

  • House Bill 2170: Allows Tennessee hospitals to draw down $1.7 billion in federal funding to support the TennCare program so patients can continue to have access to high quality health care services.

  • House Bill 2184: Extends the sunset date for the Ground Ambulance Assessment Program. The program allows TennCare to draw down an additional $20 million in federal funding to fill gaps in Medicaid reimbursements for ambulance services provided to TennCare patients.

  • House Bill 2505: Creates the Tennessee Rare Disease & Advisory Council to advise the TennCare prescription drug utilization review committee, the TennCare pharmacy advisory committee, and other public and private agencies in this state in providing services for individuals diagnosed with rare diseases.

Multiple executive orders in recent days have focused on easing restrictions to increase health care capacity and testing. These orders are also providing critical equipment to those on the front lines fighting the aggressive virus.

Executive Order 15 lifts several regulations to increase capacity by deregulating hospital beds and the scope of practice so more professionals can treat patients. The order also increases health provider eligibility to provide tele-health services by loosening regulations around technology and geographic area, and it urges insurers to provide coverage for Covid-19.

Executive Order 20, which was issued late Thursday, increases the number of medical professionals available to treat Covid-19 patients by easing restrictions around retired medical professionals to quickly get them back into the workforce. The order also suspends continuing education requirements so professionals can continue working through this unprecedented health situation. Additionally, the order provides alternative assessment options for those with mental illnesses or emotional disturbances to preserve their health and well-being that could be jeopardized by an in-person visit. Finally, the order expands telemedicine efforts so all licensed providers can utilize telemedicine as long as they are practicing within their normal scope.

As of Thursday, 250 Tennessee national guard members with medical expertise were being mobilized to support the Department of Health with testing and other medical needs in rural communities. Their mission is humanitarian, not to enforce recently issued executive orders.

Remote assessment sites continue to become more available through the help of private providers as well. Referred to as “drive-thru testing,” these sites allow Tennesseans to safely pursue testing without creating unnecessary risks in traditional clinical settings. The updated list of remote assessment sites is available here.

As of Friday morning, the Department of Health reported 957 positive tests in Tennessee and nearly 15,000 tests had been administered. The number of deaths remained stable at three, and hospitalizations remained under 10 percent.

Covid-19 is also commonly referred to as the novel coronavirus. It is a complex, aggressive respiratory syndrome that has caused a global health pandemic. Symptoms usually appear within 2-14 days after exposure, and they include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Those most at-risk for serious complications include older adults (60+) and people with serious, chronic medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, lung disease.

To slow the spread and flatten the curve:

  • Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands often. Avoid touching your face.

  • Disinfect frequently used items and surfaces. Cover your coughs and sneezes.

  • Avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people.

  • Avoid discretionary travel.

  • Do not visit nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

  • Use drive-thru, pickup or delivery options.

  • If you feel sick, stay home. Do not go to work. Contact your medical provider.

  • If someone in your household has tested positive for coronavirus, keep the entire household home, and contact your medical provider.

For more information on Covid-19 in Tennessee, please visit the Department of Health’s website.

House leaders support businesses, workers during virus outbreak

House leaders are joining with Gov. Bill Lee and his administration to provide additional resources to support both businesses and employees during this unprecedented situation.

Because the Covid-19 virus has placed unforeseen economic burdens on communities across our state, a combined $200 million in grant funding is on its way back to all counties and municipalities through the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 emergency budget. These funds will be available beginning July 1, and no county will receive less than $500,000. No municipality will receive less than $30,000 and our 15 distressed counties will receive additional grant funding.

Approximately $25 million will fund another year of the Broadband initiative to increase access to reliable broadband services, especially in our rural communities. In support of our workers and businesses, we are investing $40 million for FastTrack Job Development grants to create new opportunities, support job growth, as well as retention. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development is currently working with economists to determine how to best use the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to support those who have been quarantined or who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. This fund pays qualified individuals up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits in the event of job loss.

Small businesses can now also apply for low interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Association to help meet unique needs, financial obligations, and operating expenses. Additionally, we have worked with the governor on an extension for business entities to file the Franchise and Excise (F&E) tax. Moving the deadline to July 15 will provide some additional relief for businesses big and small that are reeling during these uncertain times. At the federal level, the $2 trillion stimulus package, which has already cleared the U.S. Senate, is also expected to bring in between $2-$3 billion in funding to support Tennessee businesses and workers once it passes the U.S. House of Representatives.

Other economic resources provided through Tennessee’s FY 2020-21 emergency budget include a $41.8 million investment to support our unemployment system, and $1.3 million to continue modernizing Worker’s Compensation in our state.

Finally, for those unexpectedly out of work, Tennessee this week launched a new public/private partnership called Tennessee Talent Exchange to assist those who have lost their jobs to quickly find new employment in industries that are experiencing staffing shortages.

We will continue to support our businesses and our workforce during these unprecedented times, so our local and statewide economies come back stronger than they were before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers provide social services update

Over the last several months, lawmakers have focused on innovative, fiscally responsible solutions to support Tennessee’s working families.

This includes the creation of a bi-partisan Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Working Group by both the House and Senate Speakers so we can find new and innovative ways to help more Tennesseans move away from government assistance and achieve prosperity.

As unforeseen needs have arisen in recent days, the General Assembly continues to partner with the administration and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to meet needs for individuals and their families. This includes emergency cash assistance for those impacted by sudden job loss through (TANF) funding.

To qualify, individuals must have suffered a job loss or have lost 50 percent of their earned income due to Covid-19. They must have children in the household and be at or below the 85th percentile of the State Median Income (below approximately $52,000 annually for family of 3).

Emergency benefits are now available to families for a period of up to two months. Amounts include:

  • $500 for a family of 1-2

  • $750 for a family of 3-4

  • $1,000 for a family of 5+

This assistance is available in addition to unemployment benefits. Tennesseans in need can apply online by clicking here.

Childcare facilities remain open to continue meeting growing needs in their communities. The Department of Human Services (DHS) is relaxing regulatory burdens on facilities to meet emerging needs. To support these efforts, DHS is providing $10 million in Covid-19 emergency response and recovery grants to support existing facilities as demand increases.

Lawmakers provide education update for students, teachers, and schools

Prior to recessing until June 1, the entire General Assembly joined together in bipartisan fashion to approve a measure that will ensure no school districts, schools, district employees, or students are adversely impacted by closures or other hardships related to Covid-19 and the recent tornado outbreak. House Bill 2818 holds these important groups harmless as it relates to TNReady testing, teacher evaluation growth scores, final grades, school and district accountability assessments, BEP-related requirements, and post-secondary readiness assessments for the 2019-2020 school year.

Members also passed House Bill 2472, which allows higher education scholarship programs and financial aid funding to continue without interruption during the current health pandemic gripping this state.

All school districts remain closed through at least April 24 to preserve the health of students and communities. The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) applied for and has received two nutrition waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide School Food Authorities (SFAs) flexibility to continue to provide meals to at-risk students who rely on meals. This will permit eligible districts to serve meals in a flexible delivery model.

Additional information can be found here.

To connect families in need with food, TDOE has partnered with a vendor to make available a school meal finder website, which will help those at-risk find the closest meal pick up program available to meet their nutritional needs as schools remain closed at this time.

A new partnership with Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was also announced by the Department this week; it will offer instructional content on television while students remain home. Beginning April 6, all Tennessee PBS stations will deliver two hours of programming daily with high-quality instructional content for students to help them continue to learn while schools are closed.

For more news from the TDOE, please click here.

Federal government grants REAL ID deadline extension

In efforts to limit exposure and spread of Covid-19 at local driver’s services facilities across Tennessee, lawmakers joined with the governor to ask for and they have received an extension from the federal government related to the REAL ID credential.

Citizens who wish to access federal facilities, enter nuclear power plants, and board federally regulated commercial aircraft were originally required to obtain their REAL ID credential by Oct. 1, 2020. Because of the ongoing health crisis, that deadline has now been extended to Oct. 1, 2021.

REAL ID was established under the REAL ID Act of 2005. It establishes minimum security standards for license issuance and production and prohibits Federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes driver’s licenses and identification cards from states not meeting the Act’s minimum standards.

At this time, all emissions testing requirements in Tennessee have also been waived through May 18, 2020. Additionally, eligible Tennesseans have the option to renew their expiring driver’s licenses and other credentials online here.

Additional Notes

The Attorney General has filed an emergency petition requesting the Tennessee Public Utility Commission to halt disconnection of services for non-payment as our state of emergency continues. For more information, please click here.

The administration has also asked the Department of Commerce & Insurance to issue guidance and ask providers to be flexible as it relates to canceling insurance policies for lack of payment by employers and individuals during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Important Covid-19 resources



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