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March 23, 2001     (512) 463-0300

WEEK IN REVIEW

Ratliff Optimistic About Teacher Health Insurance Plan

AUSTIN - Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff on Tuesday said he expected that the Senate would be able to come up with a plan to provide some state funding for health insurance for teachers and school employees.

"I think we will pass a teacher health plan, put it in place, and then we will determine how much money we can put into it," Ratliff said. "And the balance will be the responsibility of the school districts and/or the teachers and the school employees."

Teachers' groups have called for an insurance plan similar to what state employees receive, with individual coverage provided at no cost and dependent coverage provided at half cost. Teachers have testified before committees that even in some school districts where insurance is available, the premiums are often too high for them to afford.

Budget constraints would make 100 percent funding impossible, Ratliff said, but teachers would still benefit from a statewide plan that at least would make coverage more affordable.

"Simply by putting it in place, we accomplish a great deal for these school districts that either have plans that are very expensive or they don't have any plan at all because they simply can't get an insurance company to write it," Ratliff said.

Ratliff said the dilemma facing the Senate Finance Committee, which writes the General Appropriations Bill, is that money dedicated to funding insurance is also money that would have gone to schools for other purposes.

Although the 77th Regular Session of the Legislature reached the halfway point this week, Ratliff said there is still enough time left to craft an insurance funding plan.

"There's lots of time," Ratliff said. "Seventy days is a long time in the life of a legislature."

On Monday, Ratliff spoke with reporters about several high-profile issues, including proposals to simplify the Medicaid enrollment process.

Ratliff said he supports the idea, but added that, as with many proposals in the Legislature this session, the budget will be the deciding factor.

"There are a number of things that can be done, all of which could be classified as simplification," Ratliff said. "So I would want to know what the chances are of funding it."

Ratliff said he has meetings scheduled with members of the Senate, including Finance Committee Chair Rodney Ellis of Houston, to try to determine what can be done within the budget.

Senate Passes Broad Medical Privacy Bill

The Senate passed a bill Wednesday authored by Flower Mound Sen. Jane Nelson intended to protect the privacy of Texans' medical records.

The bill, the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 11, contains recommendations from an interim report of the Senate Health Services Committee.

In detailing the bill for her Senate colleagues, Nelson cited the example of an Austin woman who received a marketing letter encouraging her, because "menopause is the start of a new time," to switch brands of estrogen-replacement medication.

"This is an invasion of our privacy," Nelson said. "Our health is our business, and marketing companies should not be allowed to rifle through our medicine cabinets."

CSSB 11 specifies that medical records can be used for marketing only with the written permission of the patient. The bill includes provisions giving patients access to their medical records, the right to correct inaccurate information, the right to know how their medical records are being used and sets privacy standards in the area of medical research.

The bill also gives the Texas Department of Insurance the authority to set medical privacy rules for the insurance industry. In addition, the bill authorizes the Attorney General as well as individuals to sue to halt records from being shared without permission.

Several senators had questions about the bill's reach. Bryan Sen. Steve Ogden was particularly interested in the bill's impact on parents' rights to medical information about their children. Nelson and Waco Sen. David Sibley assured Ogden that there was nothing in the bill that would prevent parents from looking at their child's medical records.

CSSB 11 was finally passed on a voice vote.

Sex Offender Bill Stalls in Senate

A bill that would have required predatory sex offenders to stay at least 1,000 feet, under any circumstances, from places where children gather stalled in the Senate on Monday.

Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, the author of Senate Bill (SB) 107, pointed to a recent case in which a facility in Del Valle was located across the street from an elementary school.

"Sex offenders, with multiple convictions of sexual crimes against children, are living on the same block as daycare facilities," Barrientos said. "What is worse than that is that the state, through our parole division, is approving these sex offenders to reside in these locations."

A group of senators, led by John Whitmire of Houston and Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth opposed SB 107, citing concerns about existing parole offices within the 1,000 feet boundary and also what would be done with the offenders if the facilities were forced to close.

"They (facilities) currently comply with the existing law, which is 500 feet. You're trying to change that," Moncrief said. "That means that these facilities have to shut down, senator, and when that happens, these individuals have to go somewhere. Where are they going to go?"

Whitmire said he opposed SB 107 because he said it would cause 12 facilities and numerous parole offices around the state to close, leaving the question of where sex offenders would be housed and treated.

After a lengthy, heated debate, an amendment Whitmire sponsored was adopted that would have allowed offenders to meet with parole officers, attend treatment meetings and live under court order in a facility or house within the boundary proposed by SB 107.

"It's much better for us to know where they are when they are receiving treatment in these halfway houses than to be AWOL and no one know where they are," Moncrief said. "That just makes good sense."

Barrientos moved to table the amendment, but the motion was defeated, with 18 voting against tabling and 10 for. After Barrientos' motion to table failed, the amendment was adopted on a voice vote.

Upon adoption of Whitmire's amendment, Barrientos pulled down SB 107, saying the amendment "guts" the bill.

Tuition Grant Bill Passed After Contentious Debate

A bill to create a grant program for students attending private vocational schools was passed by the Senate on Thursday, but not before Ogden raised concerns about a trade association's efforts to secure its passage. The bill, CSSB 554, was authored by Dallas Sen. John Carona. A companion bill, House Bill 1873, has been filed by State Reps. Jim Solis, Carlos Uresti, Jaime Capelo and Norma Chavez.

During floor debate, Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan was the first to voice opposition to the bill, arguing that state money would be better spent on public vocational schools and community colleges.

An amendment authored by Carona was added to the bill that he said would make it clear that the state would not have to put money into the fund, which would make the bill simply a vehicle to use federal funds as they become available.

Ogden then referred to a package he had received at his office encouraging him to vote for the bill. The package was prepared by the group Career Colleges & Schools of Texas (CCST). According to the group's website, CCST "is the state association for private, post secondary institutions that prepare people for today's jobs and great careers."

Included in the package were two $1,000 scholarship certificates, which according to an accompanying letter, were being offered to every member of the Texas Legislature. The letter continued that the scholarships could be given to any 2001 high school graduate from the legislator's district. The package also included a fact sheet on the Senate and House bills, with a request to support the legislation. Carona said he had not seen the package.

"I think the bill ought to rise and fall on the merits," Ogden said. "I shouldn't be getting information in my office that happens to have what I consider a financial inducement of two thousand dollars as just a little bonus for supporting the bill."

"Well, senator, again, I don't have a clue what you're talking about," Carona replied, "because my first knowledge of it was when you brought it to my attention on the floor during this debate."

Carona then made a motion to continue the process of moving the bill through the Senate. CSSB 554 was finally passed on a voice vote.

Medal of Arts Award Winners Visit the Senate

On Tuesday, the Senate adopted a resolution honoring the recipients of the 2001 Texas Medal of Arts Awards. The recipients included Texas actors, musicians and other artists, along with art teachers and patrons. Among the honorees was actor Tommy Lee Jones, writer Horton Foote, pianist Van Cliburn and musicians Flaco and Santiago Jimenez. Willie Nelson also received a Texas Medal of Arts Awards, but did not attend the Senate proceeding.

The measure, House Concurrent Resolution 178, was sponsored in the Senate by Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins.

Other Senate News

Moncrief spoke at a Thursday press conference with members of the Texas Tuberculosis Coalition urging awareness of the disease.

"This is not a disease of the past, but a disease we must pay attention to today, as well," Moncrief said. "We cannot become complacent in our fight. We must sustain our effort in this battle against this dread disease."

Moncrief pointed out that tuberculosis is the second-leading cause of death worldwide. He added that Texans have the 10th-highest risk in the country of contracting tuberculosis, with particularly high risks in the border region and metropolitan areas.

Earlier Thursday, Carona joined with the Better Texas Coalition at a press conference urging the Legislature to establish a fully funded health insurance plan for public school teachers and employees.

"The people of Texas have made their wishes known by electing those of us who promised health care coverage as a way to recruit, retain and reward desperately needed public school personnel," Carona said. "It is now time to fulfill our obligation."

Carona is the author of SB 135, a proposal that would create a statewide teacher and school employee and retiree insurance policy.

As of Thursday, 1,825 bills had been filed in the Senate. For more information about the Texas Legislature, please go to www.capitol.state.tx.us.

The Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday.

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