Legislative Update: Katie Beckett waiver, heartbeat abortion ban & infrastructure funding

Zach Vance • Mar 26, 2019 at 10:51 PM

The 111th Tennessee General Assembly is now two months into its first session, and a number of bills either sponsored or cosponsored by Northeast Tennessee lawmakers are progressing through the Senate and House.

Among those currently gaining traction is a proposal, cosponsored by six members of the Northeast Tennessee legislative delegation, to create a Katie Beckett waiver program that would expand TennCare eligibility to children with severe medical disabilities, regardless of their parents’ income.

Other proposals aim to restrict abortions and sustain infrastructure funding for Tennessee counties.

Katie Beckett Waiver HB0498/SB0476

Commonly known as the Katie Beckett waiver, twin bills in the House and Senate both gained committee approval on Tuesday.

Carried by state Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, the House Insurance Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill on to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

During the hearing, lawmakers on the panel heard from two mothers whose children have severe disabilities but do not qualify for TennCare due to household income being above a certain threshold.

Lindsey Waibl said her daughter 4-year-old daughter Dylan was born with Trisomy 18, otherwise known as Edwards Syndrome. Dylan initially qualified for TennCare, his mother told the committee, but when it came time to reapply, the family was denied.

“When I got that notice, it stopped our lives, it shattered us,” Waibl said. “I thought they got it wrong. I was like, ‘My daughter is getting kicked off TennCare? There’s no way.”

Waibl said she applied for every program she could find, including BlueCare, CoverKids and the state’s CHOICES program, but each time, she was turned down.

“We qualified for nothing because we had over $5,000 in assets. That’s what didn’t qualify us. $5,000. Do you know how fast $5,000 goes when your nursing costs $40,000 a month to save your child’s life? We were told to get a divorce, institutionalize her, or potentially put her up for adoption. We’re not going to do that,” Waibl said as she held back tears.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, later addressed Waibl’s comments, saying, “Whoever told you to get divorced, shame on them. Shame on them. And whoever told you to put your child up for adoption, if you’ve got their name, you give it to me later, alright?”

Hill called the program “a cause worth fighting for.”

“In the coming weeks, the real question will not be: Do we have the resources? The real question will be do we have the will. Do we have the political will to do what is necessary to fully fund this piece of legislation and this program?” Hill said. “It is my prayer and my hope that we will not falter, we will not fail, we will not waiver and that we will fully fund this Katie Beckett program.”

Later Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted 9-0 to advance the Katie Beckett companion bill to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Heartbeat Abortion Ban HB0077/SB1236

While the full House of Representatives already passed legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, that would ban abortions from the point a fetal heartbeat is detected, the Senate is not nearly as anxious to take up the proposal.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally told reporters in Nashville on Thursday that his chamber is “trying to construct a law that won’t get us into court on the losing side.”

The bill, championed by Van Huss for the past few years, would ban all abortions, even if conceived by rape or incest, once a fetal heartbeat is detected, or as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Instead, the Senate first wants to take up a “trigger” ban, called the Human Life Protection Act, which would ban abortions in the state if or when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

Earlier this month, Kentucky had a similar heartbeat abortion ban temporarily blocked by a federal judge, and in Iowa, another judge completely struck down its fetal heartbeat law.

McNally, who previously worked as a pharmacist at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge, also questioned whether the detection of a heartbeat meant a fetus is viable.

“Just because there is a heartbeat detected doesn’t mean that you have a viable fetus,” McNally said, according to the Tennessean. "You can have a real low heart rate and you can have a heart rate that you can tell that something is wrong with the fetus," he said. "I think we’d be looking at things like that, that it would be a medical determination that at that point there is a viable fetus."

Local Infrastructure Funding HB0531/SB1364

Earlier this month, both the Senate and House unanimously approved a bill, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, that makes a provision permanent allowing counties to contribute 2 percent, as opposed to 25 percent, in matching funds for the State-Aid Local Asphalt Program.

That provision was originally set to expire July 1. Hill said his goal with this bill was to guarantee rural Tennessee counties have sufficient resources to keep up with growing infrastructure demands.

“Our roads, bridges, and highways are critical to the economic success of our community, and it’s imperative that we make strategic investments to maintain them and promote transportation safety,” Hill, who serves as chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said. “This legislation accomplishes these goals and will also help attract new industries and jobs to our rural regions.”