Finishing up and Going out of TownCongress will be in session for just a few weeks total between the August recess and the November election. Congress leaves at the beginning of August, comes back in September after the Democratic Convention, and leaves again in October to campaign. The House and Senate agreed on a measure to ensure transportation projects continue through 2014. The biggest news out of Washington circled around the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on both the Health Care and Arizona Immigration laws, both of which affect the power of state government. The Senate has attempted to pass a measure, introduced by the President, that will encourage private business to bring jobs back to the United States that have been outsourced to other countries. The House passed Appropriations measures for Agriculture, Defense, and Transportation, as well as voted to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt and voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for the 33rd time.
»Health & Human Services“Supreme Court Upholds Affordable Care Act--Decision Ensures Millions of Americans Will Have Access to Affordable, Quality Care”
On Thursday, June 28, 2012, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) (Click here for the complete ruling) . The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the condition requiring most Americans to obtain insurance or pay a penalty is authorized by Congress’s power to levy taxes. With the Court’s decision, compliance efforts will likely move ahead at full speed with major provisions of the ACA becoming effective in 2013 and 2014. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joining Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor.
The ruling upheld nearly every provision of the ACA, meaning that the healthcare industry and employers will need to prepare for full implementation of the Act this year and the major provisions involving the establishment of state health exchanges, which will begin in 2014. The only provision of the ACA not affirmed by the Court affects state decisions on whether to participate in Medicaid expansion. The Court found the ACA’s Medicaid program expansion violates the Constitution because it threatened states with the loss of existing Medicaid funding if they did not comply with the expansion. The ruling gives states the option of whether to accept the Medicaid expansion. Many states have already indicated they will not participate.
Individual Mandate: The Individual Mandate was a highly controversial element of the law that required individuals to carry insurance or pay a fine. Although the court said this provision was not constitutional as a federal regulation of interstate commerce, a 5-to-4 majority of the Justices found it to be constitutional under Congress's power of taxation. “The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”
Expansion of Insurance Coverage: The court substantially limited the law’s expansion of Medicaid--the joint federal-state program that provides health care to poor and disabled people. The Act’s major goal is to expand access to health insurance by making more people eligible for Medicaid (those whose earnings do not exceed 133% of the federal poverty level), and by offering generous subsidies to help families pay for insurance. In the Court’s analysis of the ACA’s Medicaid provisions, it held that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to withhold all Medicaid funding in order to force states to comply with the Medicaid expansion. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Nothing … precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” As a result, federal expansion of Medicaid will begin in 2014 in all states, and the federal government will pay 100% of all costs. Starting in 2016, the federal government will shift 10% of those costs to the states. If a state does not wish to participate, the federal government may use the ACA to withhold funding related to the Medicaid expansion the state did not pursue, but it may not punish the state by withholding all Medicaid funding. Estimates show that as many as 16 million additional people would become eligible for Medicaid under the expansion if all states participate. However, if the 26 states that challenged the ACA opted not to participate, as many as 8.5 million people might remain ineligible. In Texas alone, 1.8 million would not have coverage. On the other hand, if Florida participates in the expansion, estimates show an additional 951,000 people would be eligible for Medicaid.
The Supreme Court left most of the Affordable Care Act intact, including the centerpiece provisions requiring individuals to have adequate insurance coverage and insurance companies to abandon pre-existing condition exclusions and lifetime caps on coverage. The Court’s decision means that federal and state policy makers and health care providers will continue to prepare for and implement comprehensive health reform, even though some states could decide to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. Highly popular provisions that are already in effect will not be lost, including coverage for young adults and no-cost preventive care visits for seniors. The battles over health reform are not over; the law will now be a focal point in the political arena and a significant factor in the upcoming elections. Click here to read a summary of how each Justice ruled.
»Energy, Transportation, and Environment“Transportation Reauthorization”
The House and Senate agreed on the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, which reauthorizes transportation programs through September 2014 and puts an additional $18.8 billion in the Highway Trust Fund. Below are some of the major ways MAP-21 affects states:
- Streamlining the Project Delivery Process- The biggest benefit of this bill will be a leaner, more efficient process for building a new highway. Originally, estimates cited new highway completion would be 15 years, even though only a fraction of that time accounts for actual construction.
- Program Reform & Consolidation- Overall, the bill consolidates roughly 90 programs down to 30 programs. The new and combined programs now provide a greater amount of flexibility to address a wide variety of priorities. The bill also provides incentives to allow states to collaborate with the private sector to finance and operate transportation projects.
- America Fast Forward- Map-21 creates a new program to build upon the success of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. This new program provides access to low interest capital with flexible terms.
»Homeland Security/ Emergency Preparedness“Arizona Immigration Decision”
On July 16th, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several key parts of Arizona’s immigration law but left a controversial provision requiring police to check the immigration status of people detained and suspected to be in the country illegally. Overall, the Court struck down provisions that essentially would have allowed states to write their own immigration policy, but the Court did provide states with the power for limited enforcement by allowing law enforcement the ability to ask for immigration papers. To read an analysis of the decision click here.
“States Seek to Gain Access to DHS Database to Purge Voter Rolls”
In July, Florida and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reached an agreement to provide the state access to the federal SAVE program, Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement database. This database lists legal immigrants and green card-holders who are not eligible to vote (the database does not include illegal immigrants). Florida Governor Rick Scott said this agreement would “create a path” for other states to “purge their voter rolls of non-citizens.” Five presidential swing states including Ohio, Nevada, Michigan, North Carolina, and Colorado are among those seeking to use the DHS database to check their voter rolls.
Advocacy groups have pointed out that more than 50% of the names are Hispanic and voiced concern that the database is incomplete, with many citizens labeled incorrectly—the great majority of whom are voters of color. Some argue the law aims to suppress the minority vote.
»Business, Financial Services, and Insurance“Market Place Fairness Act”
This bill would allow states and localities to collect sales tax online once common standards have been adopted. The bill has been steadily gaining steam this year as a number of organizations and businesses have worked on this bi-partisan legislation. The bill was offered as an amendment to the Small Business Jobs and Tax Relief Act. Although the amendment did not make it onto the floor, the chances for passage of the bill are improving. As pressure mounts for this bill, it may be able to make it through the Senate this year in some form. The Market Place Fairness Act would allow states to collect billions in revenue already owed to states and local government. See NBCSL’s July State Issues for a Complete Breakdown.
»Agriculture“House Passes Farm Bill”
After the Senate agreed to a version of the Farm Bill, the House began work on its competing measure. The Farm Bill proposal passed by the House Agriculture Committee slashes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $16 billion over ten years mainly by restricting states’ ability to coordinate SNAP with the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Specifically, the cuts would restrict the broad-based Categorical Eligibility (Cat El) option that allows states to coordinate SNAP and LIHEAP, limiting states’ ability to operate “heat and eat” policies. The following are projected outcomes for the House version of the bill:
- According to the Congressional Budget Office, limiting Cat-El will result in 1.8 million people losing their benefits, or 2 to 3 million, according to the Administration.
- According to the CBO, an estimated 280,000 school-aged children from low-income households would no longer be deemed eligible for free school meals through their receipt of SNAP benefits.
- According to the CBO, limiting “Heat and Eat” will result in an additional 500,000 SNAP participating households losing $90 per month in benefits.
- The current funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program will continue but allows elementary schools with a high proportion of low-income students the ability to purchase fresh, frozen, canned, and dried produce that will be made available to students throughout the day.
- Increases funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which will help food banks supplement the diets of low-income individuals.
»Education“White House Announces “Master Teacher” Program”
On July 18, 2012, President Obama announced his plan to establish a national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps, a $1 billion effort to enhance student achievement in STEM. The program will start with 50 exceptional STEM teachers established in 50 sites and will expand over 4 years to reach 10,000 Master Teachers. According to a White House press release, “These teachers will make a multi-year commitment to the Corps and, in exchange for their expertise, leadership and service, will receive an annual stipend of up to $20,000 on top of their base salary.” In addition, the Administration has dedicated $100 million from the Teachers Incentive Fund to help schools establish a pipeline in STEM education for teachers who excel. The idea is to use this STEM instruction model for their peers and take on additional responsibilities in their school districts. Currently, 30 school districts have expressed interest in competing for funding to boost their programs.
»Labor, Military, & Veterans Affairs“Unemployment Rate Rises for Minority Workers”
The U.S. Department of Labor released the June 2012 Employment Situation Summary showing an addition of 80,000 new jobs; however, 12.7 million Americans remain unemployed. The unemployment rate had no change from the previous month?remaining at 8.2 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported, “Employment was little changed in most major industries.” The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) remains at 5.4 million. These individuals accounted for 41.9 percent of the unemployed. With federal and state unemployment compensation benefits expiring, states are exhausting what limited resources they have to provide training, education, and career counseling to build upon the knowledge, skills, and abilities of job seekers. Click here to read the June 2012 Employment Situation Summary.
“Veterans Affairs Initiative Targets 42,000 Homeless and At-Risk Vets and Families”
On July 17th, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric K. Shinseki announced the award of nearly $100 million in grants that will help approximately 42,000 homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families. The grants are going to 151 community agencies in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Under the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, the VA is awarding grants to private non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives that provide services to very low-income veteran families living in, or transitioning, to permanent housing. Those community organizations provide a range of services that promote housing stability among eligible very low-income veteran families. Under the grants, homeless providers will offer veterans and their family members outreach, case management, assistance in obtaining VA benefits and assistance in getting other public benefits. Community-based groups can offer temporary financial assistance on behalf of veterans for rent payments, utility payments, security deposits, and moving costs. This marks the program’s second year. In 2011, VA provided about $60 million to assist 22,000 veterans and family members. In 2009, President Obama and Secretary Shinseki announced the federal government’s goal to end Veteran homelessness by 2015. Through the homeless Veterans initiative, VA committed $800 million in FY 2011 to strengthen programs that prevent and end homelessness among Veterans. Click here for more information about VA’s homeless programs.
What’s Happening in July?
- Black Family Month is dedicated to the enrichment of Black families through, education, health and self-improvement. People are encouraged to rededicate themselves to their family and celebrate their connection, heritage, and commitment to one another.
- Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During this month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food and drink. Fasting is considered obligatory for those who are physically able, and is the fourth of five pillars in Islam. Each pillar represents an act of worship or sign of commitment to the faith. Eid-ul-Fitr is a celebratory holiday which marks the end Ramadan, and concludes the month of fasting where families and friends gather for large meals and the exchanging of gifts.
- Independence Day, commonly known as the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
- Mandela Day, celebrated July 18th, is a call to action for individuals–for people everywhere–to take responsibility for changing the world into a better place, one small step at a time, just as Mr. Mandela did. Following the success of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in London’s Hyde Park in June 2008, some decided that there could be nothing more fitting than to celebrate Mr. Mandela’s birthday each year with a day dedicated to his life’s work and that of his charitable organizations, and to ensure his legacy continues forever.
- World Hepatitis Day is an annual event that each year provides international focus for patient groups and people living with hepatitis B and C. It is an opportunity around which interested groups can raise awareness and influence real change in disease prevention and access to testing and treatment. Following the World Health Assembly in May 2010, it was agreed that World Hepatitis Day would be recognized annually on July 28th.