By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
On Thursday the members of the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed HB245.
In a vote of 92-0 the house passed legislation that would establish a statewide healthcare exchange.
HB245 is a response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.
The Affordable Care Act mandates that all states must form their own insurance exchanges or fall under a system instituted by the federal government.
“A vote for this bill is a vote for AlabamaCare, and vote against ObamaCare,” said Dr. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) the Chairman of the House Health Committee.
The bill sponsored by Greg Wren (R-Montgomery) would set the parameters for an Alabama Heath Insurance Exchange.
Wren has worked diligently over the past two years to understand, write and champion a statewide system said in a recent interview, “This is a mandate that was thrust upon the state with tremendous obligations. We must act before the Federal government takes over.”
As a candidate Dr. Robert Bentley had made creating a healthcare exchange for Alabama a part of his campaign for governor. As governor he has worked to develop such an exchange but did not favor the passing of HB245.
According to McClendon a spokesman for the governor stated recently that the governor preferred to wait on a court ruling in June, which will be after the legislative session is over. McClendon publicly stated in a recent House Health Committee meeting that as Chairman of Health, he could not condone passively inviting the Feds to Alabama to commandeer decisions rightfully ours to make.
The Affordable Care Act gives states until December 31, 2012 to establish their own healthcare exchange or the Federal government will create a exchange for them.
Representative Joe Hubbard (D-Montgomery) said of the situation facing Alabama. “Whatever side of the Federal healthcare policy you line up on, the issue is that there is a mandate for the states to have in place a healthcare exchange by 12-31-2012,” said Hubbard. “If the a state does not have an exchange in place by that date the federal government will come in and set one up for them.”
In March, the US Supreme Court heard arguments to overturn The Affordable Care Act. The court even set aside an unprecedented three days to hear the case. Their decision is expected to be announced some time in late June Hubbard explains, “We only have six legislative days left in this session. If we are going to have an exchange in place the time is now.
The competing interests are keeping the federal government out of our healthcare system or waiting to see if the court overturns the exchange portion of the law.
If we wait on the Supreme Court and the court does not overturn the exchange portion of the law we are stuck with the feds having their hands in our healthcare system. That is an unacceptable option.”
Hubbard points out that if the court uphold the exchange portion of the Affordable Care Act and there is not a plan in place the legislators are faced with only two options, let the federal government dictate Alabama’s healthcare or call a special session of the legislative branch to write a heath care exchange law.
Almost a year and a half ago the Governor asked McClendon and others to establish a commission that would study and recommend the implementation of the statewide healthcare exchange in compliance with the the Affordable Care Act. Millions were spent on the governor’s commission and the report was delivered to the governor’s office in December.
McClendon who was a part of the governor’s commission is a firm supporter of HB245. “We the people of Alabama are capable of running our healthcare without carpetbaggers from Washington coming down here to tell us how to run our state,” said McClendon. “A failure to act on this legislation is like inviting General Sherman to stage another fiery march through Alabama.”
Many have been perplexed by the Bentley administration’s resistance to establishing an exchange ahead of the federal deadline.
Wren has stated numerous times that the guidelines for the Federal Exchange have yet to be written. “No one knows what it will look like. If Alabama does not act we will be stuck with whatever the Obama administration decides for Alabama,” said Wren. “I will turn over every rock in the Legislature to prevent that from happening. I will not stand by and let that happen even if we only as a defensive measure we need to have a bill in place. That builds and exchange through a governance board.”
While the governor’s office lobbied hard on Thursday to defeat HB245 the bill passed with complete and unanimous bi-partisan support. After the vote one legislator was heard saying “Let me summarize this defeat of the governor’s effort to kill the bill: ‘Legislature 92, Governor Zero.'”
The governor’s office has given considerable time, energy, effort and taxpayer dollars to creating a superior, state of the art healthcare exchange for Alabama.
But during the hearings of the House Health Committee there has been a constant resistance to HB245.
Alabama is among the states that have challenged the constitutionality of ObamaCare.
Many lawmakers hope to see the Affordable Care Act overturned by the Supreme Court in June.
Wren says he has worked to see ObamaCare repealed. He says that he is also completely supportive of the litigation that would overturn the Affordable Care Act but Wren says he also believes the state must be proactive.
“The sheer weight of the problem for Alabama and all states is that this is still the law of the land.”
Thursday’s vote seems to support the idea that Republicans and Democrats agree betting Alabama’s future on what the Supreme Court may or may not do, is a gamble too risky to make on the backs of the people of the state.
“Now, the Governor has said, ‘Let’s wait and see what the Supreme Court decides,’ but if we do that then the only way for us to set up our own exchange is to call a special session to the tune to half a million dollars, to address that singular issue. To me that is fiscally irresponsible,” said Hubbard.
It has been suggested that the Bentley administration could enact a healthcare exchange by executive order.
This may be because on June 30, 1967, then Governor Lurleen B. Wallace signed Executive Order Number 8 official forming Alabama’s Medicaid program.
An attorney inside the administration who would not speak on the record said, “If this is the advice the Governor is receiving I hope that are prepared for a fight with the Legislature. I don’t believe any governor would be allowed to get by with what Lurleen Wallace did, the times have changes since those days.” The attorney said that only the legislative body can appropriate money under the law and therefore it is erroneous to believe the executive has that kind of power.
Hubbard points out that there is no risk in passing HB245, “I have work with Representative Wren on this bill. The point is to have a piece of legislation in place in case the Supreme Court does uphold the exchanges so that we are ready to institute our own plan.”
Hubbard says there is a provision in the law that if the court strikes down the healthcare exchange portion of the Affordable Care Act then HB245 dissolves, it will in effect self-distruct.
The House has cast their vote unanimously to establish a health care exchange it will now be in the hands of the Senate to decide next steps. However with just six legislative days left in this session no one can be sure of the bill’s fate.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.