Stuart McWhorter

Lee administration records show dozens of grant ‘commitments’

Gov. Bill Lee, second from left, holds a budget hearing with the Department of Economic and Community Development on Nov. 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig/Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has sought to chalk up disagreements about a local grant fund to a “misunderstanding” among lawmakers about the application process the money would be distributed. But emails The Tennessean obtained under state open records laws the show the Lee administration had committed to 60 projects around the state before the grant application process was formally established.

Critics have derided the $4 million grant pool as a “slush fund” and raised questions about whether the money was designed to reward lawmakers who voted for Lee’s controversial school voucher bill. Not so, said Lee, but the governor nevertheless halted distribution of the money until the next budget year.

The finger-pointing spree erupted when Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), a top ally of former House Speaker Glen Casada, announced in September that a favored nonprofit in his district would be receiving an extra $75,000 grant. Nobody in the executive branch claimed to know anything about it.

But the Tennessean records request shows Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bobby Rolfe sent a July 26 email to Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter saying dozens of commitments had already been identified.

“This morning I met with our ECD Grant Team to develop a plan to administer the $4 million Rural and Community Development Grant Program that was approved by the General Assembly,” Rolfe said in the email.

“Assuming the individual grants will not be large amounts, it is quite conceivable that the total number of grants could exceed 100,” VanderMeer wrote.

Rolfe told the paper on Monday he had no knowledge of specific projects.

“We at ECD saw our role only as the grantor of the program,” he said. “Which means as this legislation was written, (the) commissioner of F&A would be making the decision and would be approving the grants, commitments, whatever you want to call them.”

“We at ECD — nobody’s ever seen a list,” he said. “We to this day don’t know that a list exists. We’ve just been told that there was a list somewhere.”

McWhorter declined to comment to the paper through a spokeswoman. But he denied having a role in devising the additional grant pool funds with state lawmakers at the end of last session.

“I’m not part of the legislative negations,” McWorter told reporters on Nov. 4. “That was their amendment, they added the money. You’ll have to ask them how it was added.

“We submitted a $3 million request as part of the admirative amendment. They added $1M additional and they unanimously approved the budget. So you’ll have to ask them how it occurred,” he said.

Lee said he hasn’t spoken to Hill about why he thought the $75,000 was funded for the project in his district. The governor said during budget hearings earlier this month that he doesn’t know why there’s so much confusion surrounding the grant program.

“You’ll have to ask those who don’t understand it and have said they don’t understand it,” Lee said. “We understood exactly what the process was. But there have been a number of lawmakers who have expressed uncertainty about how the funds would be distributed, what that process would be.

“Because of that lack of clarity and their lack of understanding about the process, we said let’s just hold up, we won’t spend it until we make sure everyone knows how it will be done,” Lee said.

Lee announces membership of Health Care Modernization Task Force

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has announced the membership of his Health Care Modernization Task Force. Here is who’s on it:

Co-chairs:

  • Stuart McWhorter, commissioner of the state Department of Finance and Administration.
  • Bill Carpenter, former chairman and CEO of LifePoint Health.

Task force membership:

  • James Bailey, professor and director of the Center for Health System Improvement at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
  • Mike Carrigan, chief administrator of Premier Medical Group.
  • Brian DeBusk, first vice-chairman on the board of trustees if Lincoln Memorial University.
    James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical C0llege.
  • Melanie Keller, CEO Meritan Inc.
  • Mary Kiger, executive director of TN Charitable Care Network.
  • Kathie Krause, chief nursing officer at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
  • Shantelle Leatherwood, CEO of Christ Community Health Services.
  • Alan Levine, chairman, president, and CEO of Ballad Health.
  • Jim King, family physician.
  • Kim Parker, director of inpatient and crisis services, Pathways Behavioral Health Services.
  • Jeff Tibbals, Scott County Mayor.
  • Michael Ugwueke, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
  • Andrea Willis, chief medical officer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
  • Randy Wykoff, dean and professor of the College of Public Health at  East Tennessee State University.

Lawmaker members:

  • Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin.
  • Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
  • Senate Commerce Chair Paul Bailey, R-Sparta.
  • Senator Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis.
  • House Utilities Subcommittee Chair Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville.
  • House Insurance Committee Chair Robin Smith, R-Hixson.
  • House Business Subcommittee Chair Ron Travis, R-Dayton.
  • Rep. John DeBerry Jr., D-Memphis.

Lee administration gives first look at findings from health care meetings

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter has written an op-ed for The Tennessean about what he has found out during a series of closed-door meetings about the state health care in the state. Details of Gov. Bill Lee’s health care modernization task force are expected to be released later this week.

The placement of the op-ed is curious given that the paper’s own news staff was thwarted in its efforts to cover the meetings.

McWhorter said the meetings involved the heads of eight state agencies and private sector experts to “explore improving rural health, reducing chronic conditions, improving transparency and helping to foster innovation.” The discussions are apparently separate from the Medicaid block grant proposal that was panned in a series of public hearings last week.

McWhorter warned that there’s “no silver bullet,” but gave this summary of what was found:

  • First, we heard that transportation is a significant barrier to care. Lack of transportation keeps some Tennesseans from having access to a primary care physician or out-patient services. This inevitably leads to medical problems becoming unmanageable, requiring emergency transportation and services for conditions that could have been managed better.
  • Second, technology, including telehealth, is an underutilized tool in addressing access issues, especially in rural areas of our state. This technology is already having significant positive impacts for other industries. For example, telehealth has enabled schools and law enforcement to provide health care and better manage behavioral health issues which resulted in fewer school absences and reduced jail time.
  • Third, rural areas are hit harder by these issues than other parts of the state, specifically in regard to lack of providers. Tennessee, not unlike other states, continually struggles to attract providers, which can lead to hospital and physician practice closures and, subsequently, a lack of available care within reasonable proximity to Tennesseans.
  • Fourth, addressing social determinants of health could help foster healthier generations. Such efforts can aid in reducing costs, particularly for consumers during a national transition from fee-for-service to value-based care, but also for taxpayers as some costly medical services are preventable by introducing basic lifestyle changes.
  • The fifth and final theme touched on the market challenges related to medical billing. This issue is complex and includes some of the largest facets of our health care system. There is no quick solution for this issue, but it is one our state will need to have a detailed conversation about in the months and years ahead.