Stockard on the Stump: House Speaker stands by bill giving Centene a TennCare contract

April 1, 2022 7:00 am
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton: Centene Corp. needed for 'openness.' (Photo: John Partipilo)

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (Photo: John Partipilo)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton reiterated support Thursday for legislation that would steer a TennCare contract to Centene Corp., saying it’s necessary to ensure coverage for thousands of people on a dual enrollment plan.

Sexton contends more “openness” is needed because thousands of people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid were dropped from TennCare by companies that won state contracts. TennCare disputes Sexton’s assertion, saying no enrollees are or will lose coverage. 

In a Thursday statement Sexton declined to address questions about the lobbyist for Centene – who was once married to his chief political consultant – and was paid up to $150,000 for half a year to push the bill, according to state documents. A spokesman later said the lobbyist did not affect his decision to co-sponsor the bill.

Centene lobbyist Alexanderia Honeycutt Gambrell, the former wife of his top political adviser, Chip Saltsman, received between $100,000 and $150,000 for the last half of 2021 alone, according to Centene’s state filing.

“This legislation not only addresses the (managed care organization) process and the lack of transparency and openness but also TennCare’s removal of dual eligible individuals from three other insurers without any communication prior to an RFP (request for proposals). This will result in over 20,000 patients losing trusted insurers they’ve been using for many years,” Sexton said in a Thursday statement.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton sticks to his guns in an assertion the addition of Centene Corp. as a managed care provider for TennCare is necessary for ‘openness.’ He declined to address questions about Centene’s lobbyist, who was once married to his chief political consultant.

Sexton said he wants to create “openness” in TennCare’s contracting process because it lacks “transparency” and leaves providers and insurers feeling the state decides who gets contracts before the bidding starts.

Several large health-care companies also believe Centene should be added as one of three managed care organizations or a fourth in the TennCare program, including Vanderbilt Health System, Meharry Medical Center, Cookeville Regional and Ballad Health, Sexton said.

“This legislation comes at the request of these providers and supports patients who are having to move to different insurers even though they were already being serviced efficiently and effectively,” Sexton said in the statement.

According to TennCare spokeswoman Amy Lawrence, the first part of the bill requires TennCare to renew expiring contracts with Medicare dual eligible special needs plans until the General Assembly adopts a resolution permitting non-renewal. It’s a separate issue from requiring TennCare to contract with a fourth managed care organization that failed to win in the most recent bidding.

“We are continuing to have conversations with legislators to answer questions and address concerns, but no dual-eligible members have or will lose coverage as a result of this policy, and they will continue to have choice,” Lawrence said in a statement.

She noted the transition won’t take place until Jan. 1, 2023, giving people and insurers plenty of time to make a choice.

State Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, is sponsoring the bill in the House where it was placed “behind the budget” this week because it would cost the state $2.8 million in the first year and $30 million in the third year and afterward.

The bid was always three providers. Only four people bid, three providers won and now one provider that bid all of a sudden gets a bill that says … there’ll be four providers and everybody that bid has to be included, so they’re automatically included.

– Rep. Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville

The measure could be renewed once the Legislature adopts a budget for fiscal 2022-23, and Sexton’s co-sponsorship would give it a hefty boost.

TennCare responded to Sexton’s comments earlier in the week, saying it ran a “fair and open process” in its most recent bidding for managed care contracts. Spokeswoman Amy Lawrence also pointed out the procurement is under an “active protest” by Rhythm Health Tennessee, whose parent company is Centene.

Rhythm Health has a preferred agreement with several Tennessee health-care providers as well as Vanderbilt Health Affiliated Network (VHAN), which includes 60 of the state’s premier hospitals and more than 6,400 providers.

“By aligning VHAN with many other quality providers throughout the state of Tennessee, Rhythm Health Tennessee can provide TennCare patients with access to care in all 95 counties,” Vanderbilt spokesman Craig Boerner said Thursday.

Despite this support from major medical companies, state Rep. Jason Hodges questions the legislation, saying it is a form of “bid-rigging” to give a contract to the company after it failed to win a bid through TennCare’s process. Hodges says the total cost of the contracts is $12 billion, which would mean $3 billion for Centene if the bill passes.

“The bid was always three providers. Only four people bid, three providers won and now one provider that bid all of a sudden gets a bill that says … there’ll be four providers and everybody that bid has to be included, so they’re automatically included,” said Hodges, a Clarksville Democrat who is not seeking re-election this year.

If TennCare wants to add a fourth provider, the agency should make the request to the Legislature, let lawmakers decide and reopen the bidding, Hodges said.

“There would probably be 10 companies that would bid,” he added. “But it just seems like we’re stacking the deck for this one company, and I think it’s fair to ask why.”

Allegations of bid-rigging against Centurion Tennessee, yet another subsidiary of Centene Corp., caught Hodges’ eye in 2021. 

Corizon, an experienced provider of mental health services for the Tennessee Department of Correction, filed a bid-rigging lawsuit against the state and Centene, claiming a Correction Department employee communicated frequently with a Centene executive during a bidding process, then left his state post for a plum job with the private company.

Corizon and Centene filed a settlement in January, but it was dismissed with prejudice in U.S. District Court. Both parties had to pay their own legal fees and expenses.

New digs for Titans?

And now that my head is about to explode, let’s talk about football.

Blindside blocks are illegal these days in the NFL (National Flop League, no that’s the NBA where a feather can knock down a 6-9, 280-pound man). Nevertheless, top lawmakers wound up on their back sides early in the week when the governor proposed offering a $500 million in bond debt for construction of a domed stadium that would replace the Tennessee Titans’ ancient Nissan Stadium. 

No doubt, at 23 years old, it is an embarrassment. But I do have socks, underwear and golf clubs older than that. Well, maybe not underwear.

While certainly serviceable, it doesn’t quite hold the sizzle of SoFi Stadium in LA or AT&T Stadium in Dallas. But good Lord, we’re country music, not rock and rap! And it’s not as if we’re sitting on frozen tundra.

Cardboard cutouts of fans and celebrities, including singer Tim McGraw, are placed in seats at mostly empty Nissan Stadium during the pandemic season of 2020. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Cardboard cutouts of fans and celebrities, including singer Tim McGraw, are placed in seats at mostly empty Nissan Stadium during the pandemic season of 2020. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Certainly, folks are still smarting over the Garth Brooks concert that was canceled because of a torrential downpour. Does that mean we spend $2 billion to $2.6 billion for the high life?

Nonsense aside, senators were slightly peeved this week when Gov. Bill Lee’s chief salesman, Butch Eley, deposited the deal smack dab in front of them, a day after Axios’ Nate Rau broke the news online

Dadgummit Nate, you’re supposed to wait until the head honchos find out. 

They were hacked off that the governor didn’t bother telling them so they could digest the proposal before being asked about it or asking hundreds of questions of Eley.

Eley’s main selling point is that it’s going to cost the Titans about $1.2 billion to upgrade Nissan Stadium, causing the team owners to ask for more state help to build a domed stadium (retractable) that could attract concerts throughout the year, as well as a Super Bowl and Final Four.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (who is Senate Speaker) and House Speaker Sexton are on board with it. McNally’s concerns were “alleviated” in a meeting with the governor.

“We have to remember it’s an investment and the state will receive a return off of it from an increase in sales taxes” as well as development around a new dome, McNally said Thursday.

But it could take a bit more selling to persuade the rank and file.

Let’s face it, Memphis is still irritated that the Oilers/Titans dumped West Tennessee for Nashville, and East Tennessee folks would rather spend their time in Knoxville on Vols game day.

Tennessee lawmakers were peeved to learned of Lee’s plan to hand over half a billion dollars for a new Tennessee Titans stadium not from Lee or anyone in his administration but when media outlet Axios broke the news.

The state would be on the hook for a max of $55 million, though that is expected to be closer to $20 million to float the bonds. Tax generated at the stadium area would go toward paying the debt on the bonds.

Speaker Sexton said Thursday he would vote for the deal right now, “because it would make economic sense for us.” Mainly, he believes it could attract more events and put Tennessee in the running for a Super Bowl and other major events, and the accompanying revenue, much as Atlanta, New Orleans, San Antonio, Dallas and Indianapolis do because of their facilities.

Sexton believes the Titans stadium paid back the state’s investment twice over the 20-plus-year period. 

“We would expect the return on investment to be very, very high, and we’re going to run those numbers, and if it makes sense, then that’s good,” Sexton said.

The Speaker pointed out the Adams family, owners of the Titans, has been good to Tennessee. 

Other folks aren’t so sure. They’d just as soon let the Adams family float its own boat.

The Beacon Center, as usual, is against government pork, saying, “The government should never force hard-working Tennesseans from across the state, or even Nashvillians, to back funding for a stadium.”

(Side question: Does that mean Nashvillians don’t work hard? I’m asking for a friend.) 

The bigger question, though, is whether Metro Nashville and the Titans can work out an agreement to come up with about $1.5 billion to $2 billion more.

For me, the Titans are a smashmouth football team, and Middle Tennessee has some of the mildest weather in the NFL. Sure, September is hot as Hades, but the rest of the year is nearly perfect, other than rain. Do we really want to be pansies like Colts fans and sit in a climate-controlled environment? Or do we want to be able to raise hell, puke on the steps and let the rain and snow wash it away? (That last part has never happened to me.)

Money for the masses

Gov. Lee unveiled a $1.3 billion supplemental budget this week, the one everybody’s been waiting for. It’s usually where they hide the perks.

This time, there’s so much floating around it’s hard to tell who’s getting what and why.

Gov. Bill Lee’s $1.3 billion supplemental budget features such plum pieces of pork as $150,000 for the Wine and Grape Board and $1.2 million to former Florida football player Tim Tebow’s human trafficking project.

Besides the $500 million bond proposal for the Titans, the governor is giving $20 million to the Memphis waterfront project, $10 million to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, $15 million for voting machines that leave a paper trail, $17 million for Nashville’s Fairgrounds track to hold a NASCAR race, $20 million to cut the professional privilege tax to $300 from $400 on folks such as lawyers, doctors, lobbyists and financial brokers, $66 million to back air carriers, $12 million for general aviation airports and $80 million for a 30-day break on Tennessee’s 4% grocery sales tax. 

Then, of course, there’s $150,000 for the Wine and Grape Board. I wonder if they have any openings. $1 million goes to the Men of Valor for prison re-entry work, one of the governor’s favorite groups, and another $1.2 million goes for Tim Tebow’s Her Song project to protect young women from human trafficking. And the list goes on and on, on and on, on and on.

Did I forget to mention $2.2 million for a Dolly Parton Christmas special? If the Tennessee Journal tweets it, it’s gotta be true.

I feel another photo op for the gov and Dolly coming on.  

What the heck

Lawmakers are hoping to wrap up work before the end of April. At the rate the governor’s K-12 funding bill is going, it could take a special session to deal with it.

In a rather lengthy House Education Administration Committee meeting Wednesday, lawmakers punched holes in the proposal and finally adjourned without voting. That means somebody’s going to be working overtime this weekend to push this bill through House committees next week.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, says Gov. Lee's Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement doesn’t allow the state to give pay raises directly to teachers..  (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, says Gov. Lee’s Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement doesn’t allow the state to give pay raises directly to teachers..  (Photo: John Partipilo)

Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville argues the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement doesn’t allow the state to give pay raises directly to teachers. 

The Lee Administration contends the plan will let people know exactly how much it costs to educate each child, enabling resources to be poured into those important areas. 

The governor’s people also point out they’re spending $1 billion more on education in the coming year. Yet Clemmons notes that money isn’t included in the bill.

Meanwhile, lawmakers of every stripe agree counties will need to put back money to pay for K-12 education once a hold-harmless period ends after three years. Counties such as Davidson won’t have that luxury.

The problem is Lee’s plan is more complex than advertised, and they’re trying to rush it through without a thorough understanding or full support. That’s probably why the administration kept coming back this month with amendments, tossing gas into an already heated situation.

Only one thing is certain: Talk about TISA makes my head hurt.

Can I get a Delta-8 gummy?

Stock up now

If you’re into eating those CBD candies or Delta-8 gummies that apparently have a little THC in them, you’d better clean off the store shelves.

Delta-8 cannabis products, including gummy edibles, on display at Nashville’s Perfect Plant. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Legislature looks as if it’s on the way to banning Delta-8 products from being sold as the crippling bill made its way through committees this week. Just when some folks are trying to legalize medical cannabis, folks in these parts can’t even eat the play stuff.

House Leader William Lamberth says it’s a safety problem with children overdosing from ingestion of the gummies and other types of THC candies.

Critics of the bill say it will kill a $100 million industry, hurting hemp growers and store owners. They also cast doubt on Lamberth’s citations and say such a measure will go against the federal law.

As usual, when it comes to Cannabis and Cannabidiol, Tennessee is pulling up the rear. And this is further proof.

As the late, great Tom Petty used to say, “Last dance with Mary Jane/ One more time to kill the pain.”


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.