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Senate panel overhauls bill aimed at reducing child abuse deaths

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By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A bill aimed at reducing deaths and serious injuries from child abuse and neglect in Kentucky got an overhaul Wednesday by a Senate committee, which added several transparency requirements to the measure.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee unanimously passed a revised version of House Bill 290, which establishes a 20-person independent panel to review cases of children who have been killed or seriously injured as a result of abuse or neglect. The review panel is expected to recommended changes in the way Kentucky investigates and prosecutes child abuse deaths.

The measure now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The House passed HB 290 last month despite objections from the Kentucky Press Association that too much of the panel’s work would be conducted in secret.

The Senate committee passed a revised HB 290 Wednesday that would ensure the review panel’s meetings would be open to the public. Under the proposal, the group’s meetings could be closed only when the panel discussed topics that state law already allows to be deliberated behind closed doors.

If the panel goes into closed session, Denton said, it would report what was discussed in open session “without giving out identifying information.”

The bill would also ensure that documents used by the panel would remain subject to the Kentucky Open Records Act. The documents would not be released by the panel but by the agency that has custody of the original documents.

House approves panel to review child abuse deaths in Kentucky

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By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A bill that would permanently establish a 20-member independent panel to review deaths and critical injuries of abused and neglected children won approval Friday from the Democrat-led House.

House Bill 290, which now heads to the Republican-led Senate, would establish a panel of experts to review social worker case files and other information about children killed or nearly killed from abuse or neglect.

The panel would be attached to the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and would make annual recommendations on how to improve Kentucky’s child protection system.

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, told House members on Friday that the bill will allow more oversight and transparency of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child protection in Kentucky. The House voted 96-0 to pass HB 290.

The Kentucky Press Association, of which the Lexington Herald-Leader is a member, has opposed the measure, saying it would allow the panel to conduct its meetings in secret and would exempt all of its records from the state’s Open Records Act.

House passes DNA pre-conviction bill

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A bill that would allow for collection of DNA samples at the time of arrest passed the House on Thursday, despite questions about the constitutionality of collecting DNA prior to a conviction.

House Bill 89 passed the House 68-27. A similar bill has passed a Senate committee but has not yet been voted on by the full Senate. House Bill 89 would allow police to collect DNA evidence at the time of a felony arrest. That information would then be placed in a database. Police and prosecutors could run that DNA evidence against biological evidence collected from unsolved crimes.

Advocates urge legislature to restore child care money for poor families

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Child advocates urged members of a Senate panel Wednesday to find money in Kentucky’s cash-strapped budget to reverse cuts to a program that helps poor parents pay for child care.

When the spending cuts take effect in April, many parents will lose their jobs, kids will be placed in dangerous child care settings and some rural child care centers could close, advocates told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

“If they lose their subsidy, they lose their job,” said Gerry Roll, of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.

Starting in April, no new applicants will receive child care subsidies. In July, the income guidelines will be tightened so only the poorest families will receive child care subsidies.

About 8,700 families — a third of those receiving the subsidy — will be cut from the program when the maximum allowed income for a family of four drops from $33,075 to $22,050. An additional 2,900 families per month will be denied access to the program because of the moratorium, the state estimates.

Senate panel OKs bills requiring legislative approval for Medicaid expansion, health benefit exchange

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear would need the legislature’s permission to expand Medicaid or implement key parts of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act under two bills approved Wednesday by a legislative panel.

Senate Bill 39 would require legislative approval to expand Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled. Senate Bill 40 would require Beshear to get the General Assembly’s approval before starting a state-run health benefit exchange, an online insurance marketplace for people to buy insurance. The exchange is a key part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The vote on the bills split along party lines. Seven Republicans voted for the proposals and three Democrats opposed them. There was no debate on either bill.

Beshear, a Democrat, created the health benefit exchange this summer by executive order. It is scheduled to go live on Jan. 1, 2014.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to block the health benefit exchange, raising questions about the cost of implementing the program. The Beshear administration has used federal grants to pay for start up costs. Administration officials have said an existing tax on insurance companies will be used to pay for ongoing operating costs.

Expanding Medicaid eligibility — also part of Obama’s health care legislation — to an additional 400,0000 Kentuckians is expected to happen in 2014. The federal government will pay all of the additional costs in the first three years and 90 percent of the cost in the fourth year.

“This is going to be an expensive endeavor,” Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said of the reason she sponsored both bills. “We need to have input.”

“This is in no way a slight to the governor,” Denton said.

SB 39 and SB 40 now go to the Senate for consideration.

Committee approves insurance exemption for Christian health ministry

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Rev. Daniel Swartz struggled to find insurance that would cover his wife after the state ordered a Christian health care ministry to cease operations on Jan. 1.

Swartz’s wife is a cancer survivor. Other insurance companies declined to cover her, Swartz told the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on Tuesday. “They would cover me but they would not cover her,” said Swartz, a minister from Cadiz.

Swartz said he and his wife had considered moving to one of the 48 other states that allow Medi-Share to operate before finding another Christian health plan that would cover the family.

On Tuesday, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 3, which would grant Medi-Share an exemption from the state’s insurance laws. The bill would also require Medi-Share to tell members it was not an insurance company and did not guarantee that all medical bills would be paid.

Bill would make more records available to child abuse review panel

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A proposal that would give an independent review panel more records on abused children who have been killed or critically injured will be heard by a House committee next week, its sponsor said Friday.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said House Bill 290 would provide more transparency and oversight of Kentucky’s child protection system by appointing an independent panel of 20 members — police officers, doctors, social workers and prosecutors — to review the worst child abuse cases and make recommendations for improving protection efforts. There would be 15 voting members and five non-voting members.

“This is the first time that we’ve ever been able to put eyes into the Cabinet (for Health and Family Services),” Burch said Friday. “No secrecy. No withholding. No excuses. We want complete records turned over to see whether any children are falling through the cracks of the system.”

However, an attorney with the Kentucky Press Association said the industry group, whose members include the Lexington Herald-Leader, will oppose the bill because too much of the panel’s work would be done in secret.

Statewide smoking ban passes legislative committee

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A legislative panel approved a measure Wednesday that would ban smoking inside public places across Kentucky.

House Bill 190 would protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke while still allowing people to light up outside, said state Rep. Susan Westrom, sponsor of the measure.

This is the second year the House Health and Welfare Committee has passed a statewide smoking ban sponsored by Westrom, D-Lexington. Gov. Steve Beshear has backed the initiative, and mentioned HB 190 in Wednesday’s State of the Commonwealth speech.

The proposal has never been voted on by the full House, and it would likely have a rough road in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Hundreds of child advocates urge reform, more money for key programs

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Only 12 people attended the first Child Advocacy Day at the state Capitol nine years ago.

On Thursday, organizers estimated that nearly 900 advocates and children attended this year’s rally, urging lawmakers to pass key pieces of legislation ranging from a statewide ban on smoking in public places to a measure that would increase penalties for human trafficking.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, also urged attendees to talk with legislators about recently announced cuts to the state’s child care assistance and kinship care programs.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services announced last week that a program that helps low-income families pay for child care will be frozen in April and that income requirements will become more stringent in July. That means more than 8,700 families will likely lose child care assistance money.

The cabinet also announced that on July 1, relatives who care for children who were removed from homes because of abuse and neglect will no longer receive a $300 monthly stipend. Relatives who already receive the subsidy will continue to get it.

Advocates: Child care subsidy cuts will force parents from jobs and close care centers

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Big cuts to a program that helps low-income families pay for child care will probably force many single parents to quit their jobs and shutter some child care centers, warn advocates who will rally Thursday in the Capitol.

In Martin County, between 60 and 75 percent of children at the county’s only licensed child care center, Martin County Kiddie College, receive a state child care subsidy, said owner Brenda Bowen.

“A lot of my parents are trying to go back to school to further their education so they can get a better job,” Bowen said. “This subsidy program is what keeps these kids here. It’s going to have a huge impact on a lot of people.”

Officials with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services announced last week that it will set a tougher income threshold for participating in the program in July and will not take any new applications starting in April. The move is expected to save $57.8 million as the agency tries to erase a projected $86.6 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year.

The child care assistance program provides subsidies to 24,000 families to pay for the care of 48,000 children. About 8,700 families — a third of those receiving the subsidy — will be cut from the program when the maximum allowed income for a family of four drops from $33,075 to $22,050. An additional 2,900 families per month will be denied access to the program because of the moratorium, the state estimates.

“It’s catastrophic,” said Charlie Lanter, program development manager at Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, which has 30 child care centers where as many as 90 percent of the children qualify for the subsidy. “This is going to effect everyone in Kentucky. Everybody knows someone in Kentucky that needs this.”

The Community Action Council, child advocacy groups, social workers and others will hold a rally at the Capitol on Thursday to encourage state officials to restore funding to the program. Parents who receive the subsidy are writing their stories on paper bibs, which will be displayed in the Capitol.