Tennessee Given New Higher Education Goal, Adviser

Jan 16, 2013

Gov. Bill Haslam said he wants to set Tennessee on a path toward boosting college graduation rates from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

Haslam has appointed Randy Boyd, chairman of wireless pet fence maker Radio Systems Corp., to help further that goal as his top higher education adviser.

Haslam said Boyd will join a working group tasked with finding ways to tackle what the governor called the "iron triangle" of affordability, access and quality issues for public colleges and universities in Tennessee.

The panel is made up the governor and the heads of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems.

Boyd will work full time but won't be paid.

A national advocacy organization is asking a federal judge to force the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to hand over child death records. The New York-based Children’s Rights first sued the Volunteer State in 2000 over youth safety concerns.

Children’s Rights has filed a new motion in federal court saying two children died inside the same Tennessee foster home within six months, and that the response to the incidents by the Department of Children’s Services raised, what it called, “serious concerns.”

The Tennessean reports the New York group wants the DCS to provide child fatality records for children who died in 2011 and 2012 and who had prior contact with the department. There has been no formal response by DCS to the federal motion.

The department in the past has said it will provide records before ultimately deciding it was against releasing case records due to confidentiality concerns. The court filing by Children’s Rights says the few internal records and summaries filed by DCS in December made it “impossible to determine what transpired in those cases.”

Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner is calling for a special meeting to investigate the Department of Children's Services' refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner is calling for a special meeting to investigate the Department of Children's Services' refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care.

Turner sent the request for the joint government operations committee to Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, all Republicans.

The Tennessean newspaper and a group of Tennessee news organizations, including The Associated Press, have asked a judge to open records from the department.

The Tennessee House has voted to cap the number of bills members can introduce, a move GOP leaders think will help streamline business in the chamber.

The Tennessean reports the House passed a 15-bill limit for each member. House Speaker Beth Harwell initially wanted a ten-bill per member limit.

Supporters say the limit on legislation will lead to an increase in the overall quality of bills brought up in the chamber. But opponents describe the move as an effort to muzzle them. Representative Joe Towns of Memphis denounced the limit, saying “this is not the chamber of a communist country.”

The Tennessee Senate, meanwhile, finished their weekly business without deciding whether to bind the chamber to the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander is proposing a "grand swap" in which the federal government would take over all responsibility for Medicaid and the states would gain all control over education.

The senator said in an address to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday that the proposal mirrors one he made to President Ronald Reagan three decades ago while Alexander was Tennessee governor.  Alexander said Reagan embraced the idea, but it did not gain any traction in Congress.

Alexander told reporters after the speech that he see similar barriers to his proposal amid Democratic control of the Senate and the presidency, but said the change would remove the concerns and political challenges facing the states on expanding Medicaid or creating state insurance exchanges.

Tennessee Fights Transparency for Child Welfare

Jan 8, 2013

As some states move toward greater transparency when children under state supervision die, Tennessee is holding fast to its policy of blocking public access to case files.

A coalition of news organizations led by The Tennessean newspaper and including The Associated Press has sued to force Tennessee to release case records of children who died after the Department of Children's Services investigated reports of abuse or neglect.

The lawsuit uses Tennessee's public records law and argues it's in the public interest to know what steps the agency took to protect the children.

Tennessee’s Department of Correction Commissioner says he’s pursuing the use of drugs that could be used to execute inmates on death row. The Volunteer State’s entire stock of a key lethal injection drug was confiscated by the federal government in 2011 over questions about whether the drugs were legally obtained.

Commissioner Derrick Schofield says his department is urgently working to secure drugs that could be used to execute inmates.

The Tennessean reports there are currently 84 people sitting on the state’s death row, with 67 of those inmates having been there for more than a decade. Since 2011, there’s been a national shortage of the drug thiopental, which was widely used by states during the lethal injection process.

Tennessee to Begin Tracking Babies Born Drug-Dependent

Dec 28, 2012

A new study showing a major increase in Tennessee babies born addicted to drugs has prompted the state Health Department to require hospitals to report that information. A health department working group found the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, has increased ten-fold over the past decade.

NAS can result from a mother’s drug use, including alcohol and withdrawal drugs like methadone. Henry County Medical Center's Rhonda Carnell says it’s important for healthcare providers to know the signs.

“A baby can’t report to you, ‘I feel bad in this way,’ y’know, like an adult can," says Carnell. "So we have different physiological and neuro-behavorial things that we look at if we suspect it.”

Symptoms include high-pitched cries, tremors, fever and vomiting. Drug dependent babies require more hospital care. For NSA babies receiving TennCare benefits, the cost was five times more than for other babies.

Tennesee Judge Acquits Three in Sex Trafficking Conspiracy

Dec 20, 2012

A federal judge on Wednesday overturned the convictions of three men on sex-trafficking charges in an alleged widespread conspiracy that prosecutors said spanned three states. The other six defendants tried in the case had been acquitted previously.

U.S. District Judge William Haynes said his decision to overrule the jury was based on the government’s failure to prove the men were part of a single, overarching conspiracy. The men had been convicted on a charge of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children.

The mass-killings last week in Newtown, Connecticut have begun a national dialogue about America’s gun laws. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam says the killings will likely have an impact on proposed gun legislation set to be taken up next year in the Volunteer State.

Gov. Haslam says he believes schools and universities in Tennessee should be allowed to legally ban their workers from bringing guns to work. The Tennessean reports it’s a position that puts Haslam at odds with some fellow Republicans in the Tennessee legislature. Some lawmakers in the state are proposing legislation that would force employers to allow workers to have guns in workplace parking lots, as long as owners keep those firearms in their vehicles.

A poll taken for Vanderbilt University before Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown showed 53% of Tennesseans surveyed supported the so-called “guns in trunks” legislation.

Tennessee’s senior U.S. Senator is speaking out against proposed changes to the filibuster. Republican Lamar Alexander says efforts to limit filibusters would cost the Senate its historic function as a brake on legislation that otherwise might be rushed through the chamber.

The 72-year-old Alexander tells The Tennessean says without the filibuster the Senate would become “just like the House”, where a simple majority vote would win each time. When a Senator engages in a filibuster, it takes 60 votes to bring it to an end, so that the legislation in question can be considered for a vote.

Some Democrats are talking openly about changing Senate rules in January that would allow a simple majority vote to change the filibuster policy, as opposed to the 67 votes that have been the standard.

A new Vanderbilt University poll shows a strong preference among Tennesseans for a state-run health insurance exchange over one run by the federal government.

The poll of 829 registered voters released Wednesday showed 53 percent favor the state-run exchange, while 33 percent prefer the federal approach.

The results contrast with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's decision earlier this week not to pursue a state-run exchange. Vanderbilt officials said the governor was not aware of the poll results before Wednesday's release.

Gov. Bill Haslam has decided not to create a state-run health insurance exchange, leaving the operation to the federal government.

Haslam announced his decision during a speech Monday. The Republican governor, who had until Friday to decide, said the lack of information from the federal government was "scary."

The exchanges, part of the federal health care overhaul, create new online markets where consumers will be able to buy individual private health insurance coverage.

Tennessee's county health department clinics are now offering free flu vaccines to people of all ages until supplies are depleted.

The state Health Department reports that seasonal influenza is now widespread in Tennessee.

The Department urges all Tennesseans to get vaccinated now to help protect themselves and those around them from the virus.

The Health Department operates clinics in 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties.

Because vaccine supplies vary from county to county, residents are urged to contact their local county health departments for more information.

More Fungal Meningitis Cases Reported in Tennessee

Dec 4, 2012

The number of fungal meningitis cases in Tennessee is rising again. Four more infections related to a tainted batch of spinal steroids have been reported in the Volunteer State. The number of known fungal meningitis cases in Tennessee now stands at 88 according to data compiled by the state Health Department.