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House Passes Education Budget that Includes Education Pay Raises and Insurance

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

In a rare Wednesday night session, the Alabama House of Representatives passed the Republican education budget that just came out of committee on Tuesday.  Included in the budget was an across the board 2% pay raise for education employees, liability insurance for teachers, and tax credits for parents of Alabama students who choose to take their children out of Alabama’s worst public schools.

Alabama Speaker of the House (R) from Auburn said, “We have made historic gains this session on our path to improve education in Alabama and this budget is yet another step towards innovation and progress.  At a time when we face great economic uncertainty, I’m proud that we were able to not only provide a raise to our teachers but also provide them with the same liability protections all other state employees receive.”

Alabama State Senator Gerald Allen (R) from Tuscaloosa County said on Facebook, “I’m highly supportive of the education budget the House is debating. Because of conservative budgeting practices we’ve implemented over the past three years, the proposed budget includes a 2 percent pay raise for Alabama’s hard-working teachers and support personnel. This is hopefully the first raise in a plan to increase teacher pay over several years. We would obviously like to do more, but unfortunately we’re still recovering from the effects of the Great Recession. The education budget also provides an appropriation to provide public school teachers with the same type of liability insurance already provided to state employees – at no cost to the employee. I look forward to taking this budget up in the Senate.”

The budget that passed on Wednesday was a substitute for the budget that was submitted by Alabama Governor Bentley.  The House education budget was written by the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Committee Jay Love (R) from Prattville with input from Governor Bentley (R)’s office, the state Department of Education, and other members of the legislature.

Chairman Love said, “We are still recovering from the Democrats’ years upon years of unchecked spending but we are making progress thanks to our conservative budgeting practices.  Because we’ve made smart, common-sense financial decisions we are able to provide our teachers with the first pay increase they’ve received in years, putting money back into the pockets of our state’s educators.  We have spent countless hours to ensure that the Education Trust Fund budget is as cost-effective as possible while ensuring that the most effective and needed programs are adequately funded.”

Chairman Love said that higher education receives 26.42% of the education dollars and K-12 received 73.58% of the 2013/2014 education budget.  Love said that this budget also includes an appropriation of $5 million for professional liability insurance for Alabama teachers, so they don’t have to work through a third party to get insurance.  Love said that the initial cost is $5 million, but that that should come down to $2 to 3 million after the first few years.  Chairman Love said, “This is a benefit that we are trying to provide teachers.”  “Some teachers are paying up to $500 a year to buy that coverage.”  Love said that nobody should have to go out on their own to buy coverage that should be paid for by their employer.

Rep. Craig Ford (D) from Gadsden opposed the liability insurance and questioned Love’s motives.  Currently the teachers unions provide their membership with similar insurance.  Critics of the status quo argue that the unions (predominately the Alabama Education Association (AEA)) use the lack of liability insurance to pressure teachers into joining the union and artificially inflates their membership.
The budget also pays back the money that the state borrowed from the Alabama Trust fund.

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Chairman Love said, “We have to pay that back by the end of 2015.  If the economy keeps growing we can pay this.”  The budget calls for repaying $35 million to the Alabama Trust Fund in this fiscal year.

The budget provides a 2 percent raise for teachers and other education employees. That’s a reduction from the 2.5 percent raise suggested by Gov. Robert Bentley and is far less than the 5% asked for by the AEA.

Chairman Love said, “A lot of thought has been put in this budget.”

The bill establishing the new teacher liability coverage and raising teacher pay passed with broad support 86 to 13.  Similarly the House Republican budget easily passed the House 84 to 16.

The education budget now goes to the Alabama Senate.

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Health

ADPH investigating cases in Chambers as county emerges as state’s worst hotspot

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Public Health is investigating and performing contact-tracing in Chambers County as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county made another jump Thursday.

The number of positive confirmed cases in the county has nearly doubled in the past two days, rising from 36 on March 31 to 66 on April 2. The county has the highest number of cases per capita of any county in the state.

As of Thursday afternoon, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Chambers County per 100,000 people rose to 198 — more than three times the number in Jefferson County, the area of the state with the most total cases at 318.

The number of cases per 100,000 people in Jefferson County — the most populous of the state’s 67 counties — sits at 48.

Dr. Karen Landers, the assistant state health officer at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Thursday that the department is still investigating what might have contributed to such a high number of infections.

“We’re looking at that data,” Landers said. “At the moment, we do not have an indication specifically that we can discuss in terms of absolute linkage, but we are looking very closely at that data. And certainly, contact tracing is part of our review to see how those cases might be related.”

The high number of cases in East Alabama could be attributable to a higher rate of testing. East Alabama Medical Center has submitted about 1,325 tests to the state’s lab as of Wednesday, a hospital spokesperson said. It’s unclear how many tests have been performed in the state because not all commercial labs are reporting their negative tests.

“We followed up with our Health Alert Network asking that all information be input to this,” Landers said. “We know that some commercial labs report to us and some don’t.

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Asked whether the state should require commercial labs to report their negative results, Landers said, “This would be a decision for our state health officer to consider.”

Neighboring Lee County has the second-highest number of cases per 100,000 people at 55. There are 91 total cases in Lee County.

Epidemiologists at ADPH are contact-tracing all positive cases in the state. But Chambers County appears to be a particular area of concern.

The rising number of cases in East Alabama is putting increasing strain on East Alabama Medical Center, where 30 patients were hospitalized as of Wednesday and an additional dozen are hospitalized with a suspected case of the virus.

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Alabama hospitals facing “dire” equipment shortages

Chip Brownlee

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Every morning the team at UAB Hospital gets a report on the number of patients who come into the hospital infected with COVID-19 and their status. Then the doctors and other health care professions on the team receive an update on the number of days they have left before their supply of personal protective equipment runs out.

“The situation is dire,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, the director of the division of infectious diseases at UAB, during a virtual town hall with Sen. Doug Jones Thursday. “It is not just masks. It’s gloves. It’s hand sanitizer. It’s gowns.”

In some of the PPE categories, the number of days left before supplies run out is in the single digits. The hospitals may get new shipments of supplies, but if the situation deteriorates, the shortages might worsen.

“I don’t want to underplay the real threat that we — just like New York City and other hospitals — could be running dangerously short on those things soon. I think it is of the utmost importance that people understand how important that situation is,” Marrazzo said.

Marrazzo also serves on Gov. Kay Ivey’s COVID-19 task force. She said businesses across the state are enlisting to take up the challenge, but the threat that Alabama’s hospitals could run out before supplies can be refilled is real.

“This is not a hypothetical scenario,” Marrazzo said. “This is real. And these are the people who are working to take care of you and your family in our communities every single day, who are being asked to be concerned, and sometimes even make decisions about who gets to use the various degrees of PPE.”

Hospitals across the state — including East Alabama Medical Center in hard-hit Lee County — have been asking for donations of masks, gowns, gloves, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes and other necessities as a nationwide shortage of these essential medical supplies continues.

The Alabama Department of Health is not currently releasing the number of patients hospitalized in the state, but an analysis by APR yesterday showed that more than 120 COVID-19 positive patients are hospitalized in ten of the state’s largest hospitals.

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The number statewide is surely higher.

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo

At UAB alone, there are 58 patients hospitalized — about a third of them on ventilators or ICU care, Marrazzo said. At EAMC, as of Wednesday, there were 30 positive COVID-19 patients and a dozen more suspected of having the virus. Hospitals as small as the Lake Martin Community Hospital in Dadeville are treating COVID-positive patients.

“What we’re seeing is very similar to what other hospital systems are seeing,” Marrazzo said. “We are in good shape right now, and people are working tirelessly … to make sure we have the surge capacity to figure out if we do exceed the number of beds, how we deal with that.”

The number of inpatients in the state’s hospitals is currently manageable, officials have said, after elective procedures and other non-essential medical procedures were canceled to free up beds, but hospitals are still facing a national supply shortage, and the number of patients could begin spiking soon.

Estimates from the University of Washington project that Alabama has little more than two weeks to prepare for the peak of hospitalizations.

“Alabama is critically unprepared and under-resourced to weather the storm that we’re in the midst of, and it could get worse,” said Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama. “States are competing against one another and against FEMA for life-saving equipment. That doesn’t need to be this way. We should have done better. We can do better.”

Alabama is still waiting on 20,000 units of testing supplies and kits, Jones said. Alabama has also asked for one million N95 protective masks and 2 million surgical masks, but FEMA has said that Alabama will only receive 152,000 of the N95 masks and 362,000 of the surgical masks it has requested.

The national stockpile is “woefully inadequate,” Jones said, adding that it was disturbing that more than 5,500 masks already received from the national stockpile were rotted and expired in 2010, according to a report from the Montgomery Advertiser.

The state has requested 200 ventilators, though estimates suggest the state may need more than a thousand ventilators if the outbreak worsens. Jones said the state is going to make additional requests, but there are only 10,000 ventilators in the national stockpile and in the U.S. Department of Defense surplus. Every other state in the country is also requesting these supplies.

“I hope that they will put Alabama at the top of the list so that we can get ahead of what we know we’re going to need,” Jones said. “We need to have more.”

A lack of testing supplies in Alabama has made grasping the scale of the outbreak difficult. In Mobile, officials have had difficulty getting needed supplies to test in the region nearest to a deadly and growing outbreak in Louisiana. In Huntsville, officials had to close a drive up testing site because they were not able to get supplies.

The CEO of Huntsville Hospital called the nationwide lack of testing materials a “travesty” earlier this week.

Thousands of units of testing materials and kits are coming, Jones said, “but we need millions,” he said. “There’s an alarming lack of tests in underserved and African-American communities. There’s not enough information about when and how these communities are going to get tested.”

Jones did not place blame on the Alabama Department of Public Health but said the problem is national — and international — in scope.

“It is not because the state is not working hard. They’re working 24 hours a day and they’re trying,” Jones said. “It’s just that the tests have not been available.”

The senator also called on President Donald Trump to issue further orders under the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce needed medical supplies.

“It is unfortunate when you’re pitting one state against the other, one hospital within a state against the other, and one country against the other,” Jones said. “So, we haven’t had that coordination out of the administration. I’m hoping that’s going to change as the Defense Production Act comes up with ventilators. I’m hoping that we will see that more with production of masks [and other PPE].”

But Jones did call on Gov. Kay Ivey to implement a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order. He said the state should take aggressive measures to limit the spread of the virus before the situation worsens. Marrazzo echoed that call.

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Gov. Ivey OKs release of some parole violators in jails

Chip Brownlee

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Gov. Kay Ivey is allowing the release of some alleged probation and parole violators in the custody of jails across the state. She’s also issued a number of new directives to free up health care resources.

The measures are intended to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and prepare for a rise in hospitalizations.

In a new executive order, Ivey is allowing sheriffs and local officials across the state to release some inmates being held in jails on alleged probation or parole violations if those inmates have been in jail custody for more than 20 days without a parole or probation hearing.

Violators who are being held on new criminal charges or other criminal charges aren’t eligible for release, according to the order, which mainly applies to those in custody on technical violations.

If a hearing is not held within 20 days, the sheriff shall release the violator unless they are being held on other criminal charges.

“Because the conditions of jails inherently heighten the possibility of COVID-19 transmission, I find that it would promote the safety and protection of the civilian population to allow local officials to reduce the number of local inmates being held in county jails in a way that does not jeopardize public safety,” Ivey wrote in her order.

The order does not apply to inmates in state prisons.

You can read Ivey’s full order here.

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In the same modified executive order, Ivey ordered state agencies to allow for an expanded scope of practice for health care workers like nurses, nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists. Experts fear there may not be enough health care practitioners to care for the number of patients that may require hospitalization and inpatient care.

This part of the order, intended to reduce strain on medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients, will relax but not completely eliminate the degree of supervision required for these non-M.D. health care professionals to care for patients.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the state rises and hospitals begin to feel the strain of the outbreak, Ivey also directed state agencies to provide temporary waivers so hospitals and nursing homes can free up bed space and open new facilities if needed.

Additional new directives in Ivey’s supplemental order:

  • Allows expedited process for out-of-state pharmacists, nurses, and doctors to obtain temporary licenses to practice in Alabama
  • Expedited reinstatement of medical licenses, allowing retired doctors, and others who left the profession in good standing to return to practice
  • Pharmacy Board can expedite procedures to establish temporary pharmacies.
  • Notary publics can notarize documents remotely.
  • Government agencies can postpone unnecessary meetings or meet remotely.
  • Corporate shareholder meetings can be conducted remotely.
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Alabama Dept. of Corrections has tested 17 inmates for COVID-19

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Corrections has tested 17 inmates in nine of the state’s prisons for the novel coronavirus. All tests so far have been negative.

Five more inmates have been tested, but their results are pending.

ADOC began publishing test data on its website Thursday. It says it will update the information twice a week.

“The Alabama Department of Corrections remains committed to maintaining transparency – without compromising security –throughout the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak, and has been working to aggregate relevant data to keep the public informed about the health and well-being of those who live and work in our facilities,” the department says.

The first batch of testing data released from the department comes as a number of advocacy groups, families, former law enforcement officials and activists have called on the state to take extraordinary steps to protect vulnerable inmates in the state’s prisons.

They say that overcrowding in the prisons makes them particularly susceptible to an outbreak of the virus.

 

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