1. Public School Funding Reform
***Update***: The Tennessee General Assembly passed the Governor's new public school funding formula, called the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA), on the last day of the 2022 session. TISA is considered a "weighted" funding formula. A weighted funding formula assigns a "base" amount of funding to every student, then adds "weights" or multipliers to some students' funding level based on certain demographic characteristics. This includes students with disabilities, who can be assigned weights based on 10 categories of "unique learning needs" (ULN's), ranging from an additional 15% to 150% of the base funding for that student.
A weighted funding formula is far better for students with disabilities than the previous formula was. The weights recognize that some students with disabilities have health and educational needs that cost more money to meet, and adjusts that student's funding accordingly.
While the TISA has now passed into law, there is still substantial work for the Tennessee Department of Education to do before the new funding formula is implemented during the 2023-2024 school year. The Department must engage in "rule-making", which hashes out the fine details of how the formula will work. This includes a number of topics of relevance to students with disabilities and their families, including the definitions of each of the 10 "ULN's", what school-based outcomes the state will incentivize and reward, as well as what things will be funded directly (rather than be included in the "base" amount).
It is expected that the Department of Education will release their proposed rules in early June, which sets off the rule-making process. First, the State Board of Education will hear the proposed rules and issue a positive, neutral or negative recommendation on each of the rule components. Then, there will be a public comment period, in which the Department solicits feedback from the public and will respond to each comment that is submitted. Then, the rules may or may not be adjusted based on public feedback, finalized and sent to the General Assembly joint Government Operations Committee for a final positive, neutral or negative recommendation.
The public comment period represents an important opportunity for advocates and stakeholders to influence some really important parts of how TISA will be implemented. Stay tuned for some materials to help with submitting public comment coming shortly.
2. Respite Options for People with Disabilities
The Alzheimer’s Association of Tennessee has sponsored a bill SB 1749/ HB 1686 to create a pilot respite program for caregivers of individuals living with Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. As it’s currently written, the bill would use the respite infrastructure of the Area Agency on Aging and Disability (AAAD) to provide access to care. The bill prioritizes enrolling individuals who are on the Options waiting list and would serve up to 150 individuals per year.
This is an important bill both in that it provides a desperately needed service to offer support to 357,000 family caregivers of individuals living with Alzheimer’s and/or dementia across the state, as well in that it opens the door to have a conversation about the dire state of respite access in Tennessee.
***UPDATE***: This bill has now passed into law, and will begin implementation on July 1st, 2023
3. Adult Changing Tables
SB 602/ HB 905 will ensure that adult changing tables are located at every rest stop and welcome center across the state, and provide private businesses and other buildings access to grant funding to install them. This bill was introduced in 2021 in the first year of the 112th General Assembly session and was assigned to summer study.
This is a bill that would benefit a lot of Tennesseans with disabilities, as well as their families. First, the bill offers Tennessee families the opportunity to spend time in places where they currently must choose between going home or changing a family member on the floor of a bathroom. Second, it signals to these same families that they are welcome in these places and that their presence is valued. Finally, it is simply a good universal design, because it ensures that people with and without disabilities have access to this tool should they need it.
***Update***: While the bill itself was ultimately rendered moot, the Governor included $1 Million (twice what was asked) to support installation of adult changing tables around the state.
4. Insurance Coverage for Telehealth
Of the many lessons we’ve learned about access to health care during the pandemic, one of the more valuable contributions was the broadened access to and coverage for telehealth. In August 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill that required insurance companies to cover telehealth the same way they would in-person care. The bill also changed some rules around geographic proximity and expanded the type and number of providers who are permitted to provide telehealth services. However, the bill passed in 2020 provides only temporary flexibility, with the rules due to expire in April 2022. While this bill text has not been published yet, we expect to see legislation that would either extend telehealth flexibilities and coverage parity rules, or make them permanent.
***Update***: There are actually two bills here, the one described above and one that permits wider use of audio-only telemedicine services. Both bills passed the General Assembly and have now become law.