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Speaker on Offense, Already Fumbling

Lee Hedgepeth

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By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter

In his first interview after the end of the 2014 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature, Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Hubbard told Phil Rawls of the Associated Press, “I am going on the offense.”

In an apparent first drive, Speaker Hubbard gave the Opelika-Auburn News a two hour interview at the end of last week. In it, he vehemently denies all implications against him that were revealed in convicted former Representative Greg Wren’s public corruption plea deal, and makes some accusations and admissions that may turn out to be less of a first down and more of a fumble.

As the Alabama Political Reporter has covered here, Speaker Hubbard is the only person besides Wren to be mentioned in the former Representative’s plea deal.

In the plea deal narrative, which Wren testifies to as accurate – under threat of serving his now-suspended one year jail sentence – Speaker Hubbard is shown to have been intimately involved in improperly granting a monopoly over some medicaid prescription drug programs to a firm with financial connections to both himself and Wren, who authored the 23 exclusionary words.

“Wren, and others affiliated with pharm co-op, had various meetings with members of the Alabama Legislature in which Wren sought legislative-support for the Co-op Exclusive Language,” the plea agreement says.



“Among the meetings Wren participated in while attempting to obtain legislative support for the Co-op Exclusive Language were meetings attended by the Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives.”



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The plea deal goes on to assert that Hubbard “endorsed” the language, and directed its insertion:



“After meeting with Wren and others, and reviewing the Co-op Exclusive Language, the Speaker of the House endorsed the Co-op Exclusive Language and directed staff to add it to Medicaid’s section of the General Fund Budget. The Co-op Exclusive Language became a part of the House of Representatives substitute version of the General Fund Budget. The substitute version was voted on and approved by the House of Representatives on April 23, 2013.”

On one hand, in his new “offensive” interview, Hubbard completely denies that he endorsed the monopolizing language, and emphasizes that then-Representative Wren wrote the language.

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“Most of it is just trying to appease my members, to get them happy,” the Speaker said in the interview.

“I’ve actually got pharmacists who are in the House who are very concerned about independent pharmacists begin cut out of Medicaid.”

On the other hand, Speaker Hubbard – for the first time on record (at least in public) – admitted in the interview that “walking in the chamber to vote” on the budget, he knew that language included in its medicaid section would grant a monopoly to APCI, a firm for which he financially benefited.

“When the language is put in, I find out when I’m walking in the chamber to vote on the budget that the way it was written that the only entity in the state able to do it is APCI,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard would go on to vote for that budget version not just once, but a total of a dozen times.

Alabama Political Reporter covered the monopolizing medicaid language before any other news organization, beginning here in June 2013, just after the budget votes occurred.

Hubbard has also said that after the vote, he went to the Alabama Ethics Commission to be sure that he had done nothing wrong. The Speaker says that after explaining the situation and the vote, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, Jim Sumner, told him, “You haven’t even come close to the line. Nothing to worry about.”

While that may be the case, Ethics Commission Director Sumner has told the Alabama Political Reporter(see below)

Audio of Alabama Political Reporter’s interview with Sumner about not reviewing Hubbard’s APCI contract can be heard here.

Another issue that arose in the plea agreement’s “statement of facts” was that Speaker Hubbard had not informed Wren or other relevant legislators of his “financial relationship” with APCI:

“Subsequent to the meetings, in which Wren participated, wherein the Speaker of the House reviewed and endorsed the Co-op Exclusive Language, Wren was informed by a lobbyist, who had represented Pharm Co-op in those meetings, that the Speaker of the House had an ongoing financial relationship with Pharm Co-op. The Speaker of the House had not informed Wren, or others Wren interacted with in those meetings, of that ongoing financial relationship.”

Hubbard now says that although he did have a financial relationship with American Pharmacy Cooperative Inc., he did not do anything that would benefit the Bessemer-based company in Alabama.

Hubbard described when he was approached by APCI:

“I said great, but I can’t do anything in Alabama. When they put the contract together, it specifically prohibits me from doing anything in Alabama.”

As mentioned above, Hubbard’s contract with APCI has not been disclosed to the Alabama public or, for that matter, to the Alabama Ethics Commission.

In what may be another mishandling of the ball, Hubbard took at not only Democrats in the new interview, but some Republicans – and some GOP members he says are really “liberal special interests.” Hubbard pointed to attacks from such groups as a possible reason for such scrutiny of his actions and unwarranted speculation about possible investigations.

“The world has changed in four years in terms of how Montgomery operates,” Hubbard said.

Because of that, that’s why you see what’s going on now. I believe very strongly that [those] that used to be in power are desperate. They’ll say and do anything right now to try to get the power back. That’s because desperate people do desperate things. They see this as their last opportunity to try to change Montgomery.”

Hubbard continued with what may be a veiled hit at Attorney General Luther Strange, who is a possible GOP contender for Governor in 2018:

“When you’re in my position and you’re viewed as the leader of the reforms, you take a lot of bullets from a lot of folks. … They want me out of play because they fear I may run for governor in 2018. That comes into play. There have even been some that are jealous in the Republican Party that they aren’t the ones who led the takeover. You make a lot of enemies when you take this job, unfortunately. It’s political. I’m under political attack … by people who are desperate and will try to do anything to get me defeated, or hurt me and my family. Overall, it’s to try to get us in position where we don’t have the power in Montgomery to continue to do reforms.”

Notably, Democratic Senator Lowell Barron, who is facing campaign finance violation charges, has also accused Strange of selectively, politically prosecuting cases.

Finally, Hubbard directly took aim at the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government, a group aiming to have candidates sign an “anti-corruption pledge,” and running ads pointing out corruption in Goat Hill, aiming to tie them to the AEA, though offering no evidence.

“This foundation didn’t exist four weeks ago,” the Speaker told Auburn-Opelika News.

“And now they have raised and spent $1 million in four weeks, and not reported a dime. Nobody knows where the money comes from. To me … obviously it’s coming from AEA. It’s got to be. We knew this was going to happen. Some they’ve given direct money, too. Others they’re funneling the money through the foundation, through the PACs so you don’t know where the money is coming from. But it’s clear who they’re supporting.”

Senator Del Marsh has also recently criticized AFLG, with his own “dark money” group running opposing ads. In addition, Marsh himself filed a complaint about the “anti-corruption” ads that has been forwarded to the AG’s office. APR’s coverage of that story can be read here.

Hubbard’s latest interview is likely to be one in a series of “offensive” plays by the Speaker to get ahead of the game. It is to be hoped that all of his future plays, though, will have as many confessional fumbles as this one.

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Alabama Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth tests positive for COVID-19

Ainsworth is the only state constitutional officer in Alabama known to have contracted the coronavirus to this point in the public health crisis.

Brandon Moseley

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Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth speaks during a video message. (LT. GOV.'S OFFICE)

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth on Wednesday said that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

“After being notified this afternoon that a member of my Sunday school church group had acquired the coronavirus, I was tested out of an abundance of caution and received notice that the results proved positive,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “Because I follow social distancing rules and wear a mask both in church and in my daily interactions, the positive result shows that even those of us who are the most cautious can be at risk.”

“State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris has been informed about the results, and my office is taking the necessary steps,” Ainsworth said. “Though no symptoms have yet appeared, I will quarantine for the appropriate period and seek follow-up tests to ensure the virus has run its course before resuming public activities.”

“I appreciate the words of support that have already begun to be extended and am thankful for the prayers that are being offered for my recovery,” Ainsworth said.

To this point 174,528 Alabamians have tested positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, including 1,043 on Tuesday. At least 859 Alabamians were hospitalized on Tuesday with COVID-19, and 1,265,575 tests have been given across the state since March. Some 74,238 Alabamians have recovered from their illness, and 2,805 Alabamians have died from the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Ainsworth is the only state constitutional officer in Alabama known to have contracted the coronavirus to this point in the public health crisis.

The state remains under a “safer-at-home” order, including a mask mandate, through Nov. 8. That is likely to be extended into December given the recent uptake in coronavirus cases. Citizens are urged to continue social distancing, wear their masks, wash hands and avoid shaking hands and hugging.

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Health

Doug Jones applauds signing of veterans mental health and suicide prevention bill

The legislation is aimed at bolstering the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

President Donald Trump over the weekend signed into law legislation cosponsored by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, that aims to bolster mental healthcare for veterans and address veteran suicides. 

“Too many veterans – in Alabama and across the country – lack access to affordable, compassionate and effective mental health care. Through increased access to local and innovative treatment options, this new law will help veterans get the life-saving mental health services they may need,” Jones, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, introduced the landmark Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which would bolster the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans. 

The law also increases telehealth access for rural veterans, implements a pilot program to give veterans access to complementary care and establishes a grant program requiring the VA to better partner with agencies helping veterans to identify earlier those who are at risk of suicide. 

The law also strengthens how the VA will be held accountable for addressing veteran suicide, and it will allow the studying of the impact of living in high altitudes on veteran suicide risks and diagnostic biomarker research to identify depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other conditions.

More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, and of those, 14 have received no treatment or care from VA. 

“The social isolation and increased anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the issues our veterans face,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate leadership before it was approved and signed into law by the president. “Our nation’s veterans and their families are waiting on Congress to take action to deliver these desperately needed resources. We must act now to provide this vital assistance to Americans who have sacrificed so much for our country and who deserve the best our nation has to offer. As such, we are seeking immediate passage of S. 785 when the U.S. House of Representatives reconvenes in September.”

The law is named in honor of
Commander John Scott Hannon, a member of the Navy SEALs who served in the U.S. Navy for 23 years. Hannon was helping other veterans even while he was receiving mental health treatment himself. He died by suicide on Feb. 25, 2018.

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Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text to 838255. 

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Elections

Congressional candidate James Averhart endorsed by list of U.S. dignitaries, retired military leaders

The 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Congressional candidate James Averhart

James Averhart, the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District and a retired U.S. Marine, has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday.

“James Averhart is an integral leader — a man of principles and a patriot. He is the best choice to represent District One on The Hill,” said Ambassador Theodore Britton, a World War II Veteran who was nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General Walter E. Gaskin, who served as commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said Averhart is experienced in matters of government and policy and understands the lay of the land in Washington D.C.

“He will be ready to hit the ground running to get things done for the district, and moreover, be that bridge to unite the parties in Congress as well as the nation,” Gaskin said in a statement.

“James Averhart is a strong dynamic leader who will get the job done. He is meticulous and a consummate professional that will advocate and work for all citizens of our district and Alabama,” said Ambassador J. Gary Cooper, a retired Marine Corps major general who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.

“At a time when it seems that the Republican leadership is in lockstep with a president, who considers those in service to our great nation to be ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’ is antithetical to what this country needs. We have over 30,000 citizens hospitalized and over 211,000 deaths due to coronavirus, which could have been prevented with sound, methodical leadership. We have been disappointed by this President and the Republican leadership standing with him. It is time for substantive change in our Nation’s Capital,” Averhart said.

“The American citizenry deserves and expects more of its leadership. We should no longer settle for those who continue to promulgate untruths and spew divisive rhetoric. We deserve leadership who will extol the truth and hold in high regard a united nation,” Averhart said.

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Avergart’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election is Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.

The following are a list of Averhart’s endorsements, according to his campaign:

Ambassador Theodore Britton

  • Nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada
  • Served as the U.S. Special Representative to West Indian island nations of Antigua, Dominica, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia
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Ambassador J. Gary Cooper 

  • Vietnam Veteran and Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General
  • Nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.
  • Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as Asst Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

Lieutenant General Ronald L. Bailey

  • First African American to command the 1st • U.S. Marine Division
  • Served as Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Retired in 2017 following 41 years of service.

Lieutenant General Walter E. Gaskin

  • Served as Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC Served as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Quantico, Virginia
  • Served as Chief of Staff, Naval Striking and Support Forces-Southern Europe
  • Served as Deputy Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces-Europe in Naples, Italy

Major General Cornell A. Wilson, Jr.

  • Served as Director, Reserve Affairs Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs – Headquarters, U.S. MArine Corps, Quantico, Virginia.
  • Appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, NC, to the position of Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Lieutenant General Willie J. Williams

  • Served as Director of the Marine Corp Staff
  • Retired in 2013 after serving 39 years in the U.S. Marine Corp.

Brigadier General John R. Thomas

  • Served as Director for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Served as Director and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Marine Corp.

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Health

AARP’s COVID-19 dashboard shows Alabama nursing home lagging behind national averages

In each of five parameters Alabama fared worse than the national average.

Eddie Burkhalter

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A recently-released dashboard shows that Alabama’s nursing homes, residents and staff alike, are suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s concern over what may happen in the coming days and weeks. 

“We know we’re moving into a very dangerous time right now, with flu season, and weather getting colder and people moving indoors,” said AARP Alabama spokeswoman Jamie Harding, speaking to APR on Monday. 

AARP partnered with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio in the creation of the dashboard, which in this first set uses data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to look at five parameters for the four-week period ended Sept. 20. 

In each of the five parameters — nursing home resident deaths per 100 residents, resident cases per 100 residents, staff cases per 100 residents, supply of personal protective equipment and staffing shortages — Alabama fared worse than the national average.

In the last month, there were 1.03 COVID-19 deaths among Alabama nursing home residents per 100 residents, tying with Mississippi as the second highest death rate in the nation, coming just behind South Carolina, which had the most, at 1.2 deaths per 100 residents, according to the AARP reports. 

As of Oct. 14, 45 percent of Alabama’s total COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic were among nursing home residents, totaling 1,088 resident deaths at the time, according to the dashboard. For the four weeks ending Sept. 20, nursing home residents made up 48 percent of the state’s deaths. 

Harding also noted that by the time CMS publishes the nursing home data “it’s about two to three weeks old” so the public isn’t getting up-to-date information on what’s happening in nursing homes, but she said at least the AARP’s dashboard will show trends in the data over time. 

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“We want the state, we want our leadership to take this data seriously, to see that we are not performing well on these five metrics, which are very critical metrics, and we want to know how this is going to be addressed,” Harding said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health has declined to release county-level or facility-level details on coronavirus in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, citing privacy concerns. 

“So that’s the problem, and Alabama has stubbornly refused to release daily reports, and remains one of just a handful of states still refusing to release the daily report, and we really have no good answer,” Harding said. 

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Harding also discussed a COVID-19 outbreak at the Attalla Health and Rehab, first reported by AL.com, in which the facility had to be evacuated due to a huge spike in cases there, peaking on July 10. Some residents were taken to a local hospital, while others were taken to Gadsden Health and Rehab and Trussville Health and Rehab, sparking an outbreak of COVID-19 at Trussville Health and Rehab. 

AL.com’s reporting noted that while at least 10 states have special strike teams ready to send staff and supplies to nursing homes experiencing an outbreak, Alabama does not. 

The new outlet quoted Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health as saying that the department doesn’t have the staffing to form such teams. 

“That is an indication that this was a problem they were never prepared for, and they should have been,” Harding said.  “They are the Department of Public Health. This is their work. This is their job.” 

Harding also said that as of at least the end of September, the Alabama Nursing Home Association hadn’t yet begun spending the $50 million in CARES Act funds, which Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Aug. 7 would be made available to reimburse state nursing homes via the hospital association’s Education Foundation for the cost of fighting against COVID-19. 

John Matson, ANHA’s spokesman, told ABC 33/40 reported on Sept. 28 that the funds were in a holding account and the first claims should be paid in early October. Matson said an accounting firm had been hired  to help handle the administration of the funds. 

Harding expressed concern that the federal aid wasn’t being spent to help protect state nursing homes quickly enough, and said that the Attalla nursing home outbreak was made worse by a staffing shortage as workers either became sick themselves or quit to protect themselves and their loved ones. Alabama nursing homes weren’t overstaffed before the pandemic, she said. 

“We would like to see some of that $50 million dollars spent to address staffing emergencies,” Harding said. 

Matson, in a response to APR on Monday, said that since mid-March, Alabama’s nursing homes have been in the center of a fight to defend the most vulnerable citizens of our state from the most insidious and infectious virus attack in the last century. 

“Every resource has been pushed to the extreme,” Matson said. “While critics have the luxury of creating dashboards generated from government databases, the caregivers of Alabama’s nursing homes have relentlessly fought day-by-day, risking their own health, to care for the residents who depend on us. Our people are heroes and our nursing homes have met an unprecedented challenge.” 

Matson said every dollar of the $50 million spent must be justified by documentation, every claim is to be audited by an independent auditing firm before reimbursements are approved and ANHA filed regular reports to the Alabama Department of Finance which are publicly viewable. 

ANHA’s report for September, filed Oct. 15, states that many facilities were just then become eligible to apply for some of those $50 million due to requirements that the facilities deduct from amounts claimed any other coronavirus aid the facility may have received from other sources, such as the “Medicaid COVID add-on of $20 per day per Medicaid patient, DHHS Provider Relief Funds; and SBA payroll Protection payment loans attributable to payroll, if any.” 

“Therefore, due to the application of these mitigants, many facilities are just now becoming eligible to apply for and receive funds,” the report reads. 

The September report also states that to guard against funds not being available “in the event of a second or later COVID-19 wave, the Foundation is holding back 25% of approved claims.” 

The report also says that 12 facilities as of Sept. 30 were approved for $6.5 million in claims, with $1.6 to be held back for possible future COVID-19 waves. As of Oct. 13, there were $10.4 million in pending claims filed by 65 facilities, according to the report, and there were $16.9 million on total claims paid or pending.

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