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COVID legislation at forefront

BY RALPH ALVARADO

State Senator

I hope that you and your family remained safe during the period of heavy ice and snowstorms. Pictures shared and reported showed just how extreme the situation was. Hundreds of thousands have been left without power. Still, as we can always expect from Kentuckians, incredible road crew workers, utility employees, first responders, and neighbors all stepped up to the plate to lend a helping hand. We really cannot say enough about the men and women who work to keep the roads clear and the lights on. Stories across the commonwealth included county personnel helping other counties, emergency efforts to get necessities to people who were without, and so much more. During crises, the general good in people shows through, and the storm is braved together. Thank you to all involved in helping others.

With that said, allow me to get right into an update from your state Capitol.

Last week, a Franklin County Circuit Court Judge put another injunction on House Bill (HB) 1. This comes from the governor’s litigation against that bill and Senate Bills (SBs) 1 and 2. By the time you read this, the judge may have already issued a ruling in the case involving all three bills. No matter what the circuit court’s ruling is, I think we can expect an appeal to be filed and to see the case before the Supreme Court of Kentucky eventually.

Interestingly, during last week’s joint meeting of the House Health and Family Services Committee and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, a representative from the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy testified in support of amending an existing emergency regulation relating to vaccinations. This is a process that exists only because of the passage of SB 2, which the governor is trying to keep from becoming law through the litigation he has filed. The Board of Pharmacy said that the flexibility SB 2 provides to allow the amendment of emergency regulations is especially important during a state of emergency because, without it, a tedious process is required just to make modifications. Thanks to SB 2, the emergency regulation on ordering and administering vaccinations was amended to allow Kentucky pharmacists to join in on the widespread COVID-19 vaccination efforts. This is a simple but vital update to the current regulation that will result in lives saved. We can all be grateful to those at the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy for their initiative in making this happen.

“Priority” bills seek to address the state’s most immediate challenges or focus on areas of the law that are of particular importance to Kentuckians. Several priority measures relate to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the commonwealth. Some seek to apply effective solutions to unemployment insurance issues and the economy, while others promote stronger legislative oversight to improve government transparency.

A few priority bills continued through the legislative process this week. They included SBs 4, 6, 7, and 10.

SB 4 establishes procedures and requirements for the issuance of a warrant that authorizes entry without notice while maintaining the ability to act in situations involving a violent offender or life-and-death situation. Applications for warrants would have to be reviewed impartially by a judge and conducted in service with a special response team (S.W.A.T.) that is trained for special operations. Additionally, due process protections would be put in place, making any evidence collected in violation of the law’s provisions inadmissible in court. SB 4 serves to make dangerous circumstances safer for law enforcement and the public while strengthening the public trust in agencies.

SB 6 would create standards for ethical conduct for transition team members of all newly elected statewide officeholders. The standards would include identifying any team member who is or has been a lobbyist. The bill would also require them to disclose such things as current employment, board member appointments and any non-state sources of money received for their services. Another provision would prohibit them from receiving nonpublic information that could benefit them financially.

SB 6 would require the existing Executive Branch Ethics Commission to set ethical conduct standards related to transition teams by developing a standard of ethical conduct agreement for transition team members to sign. It would apply to all members and would address the role of those who are registered or former lobbyists. Members would be required to disclose certain information, such as their current employer, boards on which they serve as a member, and any non-state sources of funds they receive for their, or their spouses, services. Additionally, the bill would prohibit transition team members from accessing non-public information regarding matters that could personally benefit them or their spouse, clients, or any business with which they may be affiliated.

SB 7 directly responds to a challenging situation posed by the ongoing issue surrounding the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. Due to the system’s fallibility, some benefits were awarded to people who did not qualify for them. This is through no fault of the recipients. SB 7 would establish a means by which recipients of overpayments could request a waiver to avoid repaying those funds. Recipients would have to respond with a waiver request in no less than ten days from the date the Secretary of the Labor Cabinet deposits a notification in the mail.

On a related note, the General Assembly received testimony from State Auditor Mike Harmon on his recent finding that over 400,000 UI-related emails remain unread. The report also cites overpayments made to recipients. I encourage you to watch that testimony, which took place during a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor. It’s available online at ket.org/legislature/archives.

SB 10 is another bill I co-sponsored. I think that this measure can lead to meaningful dialogue and create a conducive environment for considering solutions for challenges facing communities across the commonwealth. If passed, SB 10 would establish a Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity within the legislative branch to conduct studies and research where disparities may exist across sectors of educational equity, health care, economic opportunity, criminal justice, and more. The Commission established would have the authority to hold monthly meetings, seek comment and testimony from various individuals and organizations, and provide research to recommend data-driven policy initiatives.

During this time of great divisiveness, I think it’s essential we consider the benefit of sitting with others in honest, open conversation with the intent to listen. No, that will not always lead to an agreement on policy, but it will lead to better understanding and rapport. While we all come from unique backgrounds, endeavors like SB 10 promote clearer pathways.

The following are additional bills that I sponsored or co-sponsored passed the Senate this week:

SB 51 takes a step toward making it easier for doctors to treat patients struggling with substance use disorders by prohibiting insurers from requiring critical evaluations known as utilization reviews (UR). This requirement for matters such as addiction treatment can be unnecessarily onerous. Prior authorization requirements can similarly prevent patients from receiving needed treatment when they are ready. Removing impediments on this front can allow us to save lives here in Kentucky. I am the primary sponsor of this bill and also of SB 55.

SB 55 prohibits copayments or cost-sharing from being paid by any medical assistance recipients. It prohibits deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance requirements for Medicaid telehealth services and copayments charged in the Kentucky Children’s Health Insurance Program (KCHIP). SB 55 applies to Medicaid Services or any Managed Care Organization (MCO) contracted by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.  MCOs have long failed to reimburse for medical services. This has placed financial burdens on hospitals and driven up administrative costs. Another bill seeks to mitigate the challenges MCOs have created.

SB 65 nullifies administrative regulations that were found deficient during the 2020 interim and prohibits their re-enactment for a designated period if identical to or substantially the same. One regulation the legislature found deficient last year would have provided Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to parents of children who have chosen to be absent in the child’s life. This is another bill I co-sponsored.

I co-sponsored this bill because I have long been frustrated by the administrative regulation process’s lack of oversight. Even when the lawmaking branch of government has found regulations like these deficient, the executive branch has been able to ignore them and move forward. The executive branch is constitutionally required to execute laws adopted by the legislative branch faithfully. It is not supposed to make law. The administrative regulation process leaves representative democracy at the door and makes the public subject to law made within a bureaucracy. Bills like SB 65 and the priority mentioned legislation seek to provide citizens the voice they deserve through their representatives in the Kentucky General Assembly.

On the health and welfare front, as chairman of the Senate committee, I can report a productive week. Numerous bills moved on through the process and now qualify for action on the Senate floor. Several bills that came through the Health and Welfare Committee also reached final passage in the Senate.

One was SB 56. This bill limits the number of MCO contracts to operate the Medicaid program to three. Currently, there are five. Limiting them to three will increase efficiencies within the Medicaid program and lower administrative costs for health care providers.

Education was also a hot topic in Frankfort last week. The House had robust discussion, and, in the Senate, a couple of bills related to the topic were passed. Most notably, SB 115, which seeks to build on the Read To Achieve (RTA) Program’s tremendous success by expanding the successful model used to more students. Kudos to the RTA teachers who have helped so many students and have proven the validity of the framework of the program

Many other bills passed the Senate and are on to the House for consideration. They include SB 15, a bill that a local small business, Abettor Brewering Company in Clark County, contacted me personally about. The bill allows breweries like Abettor to self-distribute up to 2,500 barrels of products each year.

SB 47 would be the first step in establishing a framework for audiologists and speech/language pathologists to be able to practice in other compact member states. Interstate compacts can be best understood as contracts between individual states that carry the force of statutory law. States may enter into compacts as opposed to always relying on the federal government to establish top-down regulations. Interstate compacts are an effective tool among states to promote cooperation. Historically, they have been used to settle boundary disputes.

SB 49 confirms the independent contractor status of certain home or community-based support services and facilitates payments for service providers through Medicaid where appropriate.

SB 67 allows for the purchase of alcohol to-go as long as it is associated with a take away or to-go food order. All existing laws and regulations on alcohol would apply to the sale of alcohol to-go, such as recognition of “dry territory” laws and license requirements.

SB 68 requires a distiller with a Class A or B license to produce a minimum of six hundred gallons within one year at the distillery’s licensed premises. The bill exempts those that distill solely for the purpose of training, educating, or conducting research so long as that product is not sold to the public for profit.

SB 86 authorizes local governments to adopt ordinances against open dumping of solid waste on land and in water and impose a civil fine of not less than $250 but not more than $500. The bill would also ensure that any revenues resulting from local ordinances are returned to the counties in which they are imposed.

SB 93 provides the Kentucky commissioner of agriculture with the authority to appoint board members to the State Board of Agriculture.

SB 131 moves the Motorcycle Safety Education Commission and Program, which offers motorcycle rider training courses for novice and experienced riders, from the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Office of Highway Safety. It also allows residents of other states to take rider training courses in Kentucky if they are eligible for motor vehicle instruction permits in their home states.

SB 135 relates to the postsecondary education performance fund. The bill revises the definition of “formula-based amount” and establishes a definition of “funding floor” for the purposes of priority funding for Kentucky institutions. SB 135 would add a hold-harmless and stop-loss prevention of 0 percent for the upcoming fiscal year and beyond. It also establishes how amounts distributed from the performance fund should be treated during the budget process.

SB 141 establishes guidelines for the distribution of funds remaining in the Kentucky coal workers’ pneumoconiosis fund. It would provide for the distribution of funds claimed by coal companies to pay wages and monies owed to counties, cities, school systems or school districts, and more. Finally, it provides for excess funds to go to unpaid workers and to the Kentucky coal employers’ self-insurance guaranty fund.

SB 148 would identify providers who offer essential child care during states of emergency. It would also return classroom sizes to pre-pandemic numbers and allow centers to combine classes during opening and closing hours once again. Thirdly, it would require local jurisdictions to consider family child care homes separately from other businesses when considering conditional use permits in residential zones.

SB 154 would allow advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants to prescribe and order home health care services and establish reimbursement for home health care services if certified.

A couple of bills reached the governor’s desk for his consideration. They were priority bills SB 3 and HB 6. SB 3 moves the current Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy, also known as GOAP, under the Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture’s jurisdiction. It passed the Senate earlier in the session and recently was passed by the House with a new amendment that made minor changes. HB 6 provides teeth to an already existing legislative committee which, with the passing of HB 6, would become the Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee. It codifies subpoena powers, gives the committee the ability to maintain the confidentiality of investigative documents, and imposes fines on those in non-compliance with the committee’s efforts.

As you can see, the General Assembly is not taking any time for granted. We are now past the halfway point of the 2021 30-day session, with much work left to do.  I will continue to provide weekly legislative updates in the weeks ahead.

Please feel free to call me about these issues or any other public policy issue toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or to email me at Ralph.Alvarado@LRC.ky.gov. Be safe. God bless.

State Sen. Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester) represents the 28th State Senate District, including Clark and Montgomery counties and the eastern portion of Fayette County.