Hearing aids for children. Oh my!

NASHVILLE - The National Federation of Independent Business, which mostly represents smaller businesses, is one of the more conservative business groups and although officially non-partisan, provides key support for Republicans. But it may have overreached today with an email to lawmakers opposing a bipartisan bill requiring health insurance policies to cover hearing aids for children who need them.

The bill (HB761) ended up passing 82-12 after its supporters used words like  "threatening" and "offensive" to describe the email they received from NFIB-Tennessee. Members said it urged a "no" vote because NFIB sees it as a health-care mandate on business. "NFIB members strongly oppose all healthcare mandates because their collective impact has forced thousands of Tennessee small businesses, their employees and families to drop comprehensive coverage that protects them while facing catastrophic illnesses," according to the group's website.

But what really "disturbed" members - as Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, put it -- was the email's warning that NFIB might include their votes on the bill among a list of "key votes" of the 2011-12 legislative term to be distributed to the group's members at election time next year.

Sponsors of the bill said the new coverage is limited, paying for an initial hearing aid and then new ones once every three years up to age 18 but only if an audiologist or doctor certifies a child's hearing has significantly worsened. They said the benefit will add, at most, 2 cents to health insurance premiums. It goes into affect with policies issue or renewed after next Jan. 1.

The 26-minute floor debate opened a rare fissure among the newly dominant Republicans, with some of the House's most conservative members ending up voting against the bill -- while all Democrats and most of the other moderate and conservative Republicans voting in favor. Five of the 12 "no" votes are freshmen Republicans swept into office in last year's tea party-backed GOP tidal wave.

Three West Tennessee members voted against the bill: Reps. Mark White, R-Memphis, Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, and freshman Andy Holt, R-Dresden.  Itl now goes to the Senate, where Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he expects passage.

House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga (and a Shelby County native), told reporters after the floor session that the unrest revolves around the legislature's traditional opposition to "mandates." "There are dozens of bills each year where different groups want to come in and mandate things to go on to the insurance policies and we generally vote those mandates down because they are mandates that make additional costs for individuals and businesses. But about once every year or two we pick one out that we think is especially deserving, and all the business people I know feel like we ought to help little children be able to hear and have hearing aids. I think it's a very stringent process before we let a mandate come through like that but I think in this case we overwhelmingly  wanted that one to come through and that was reflected today. Certainly the NFIB has their opinion, as does dozens and hundreds of other special interest groups around here. Sometimes we go along with them and sometimes we don't. I think we're responding to our constituents instead of the special interests," McCormick said.

On the House floor, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the bill sponsor, said "I don't consider this a mandate. I consider this a humane right-thing-to-do piece of legislation for children. They said they're going to grade me on this legislation. I've got 62,000 people back home who grade me - mommas and daddies and children. I guarantee you that if I went to every one of my  businesses back in Sevier County and said here's what we're doing and the impact it will have on children, they would all sign off on this piece of legislation. I guarantee you they would."

Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, a State Farm insurance agent who backed the bill, said, "We put caps on this so it wouldn't become an outrageous benefit. This small amount of money will be able to be consumed in the premiums."

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he received a letter from the parents of a six-year-old boy in his district who said that all he wanted for Christmas was a new pair of hearing aids. Despite that, Lundberg said, it's a mandate and he's opposed to it. "Where is the line that we draw on what's a good mandate and what's not?"

One of the House's most conservative members, Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he's "profoundly anti-mandate...but occasionally something comes along that's the right thing to do." He said the cost savings from children being able to hear and learn would greatly exceed the costs of hearing aids. "Considering the email I that got which was offensive to me as well - as I'm sure it was offensive to my colleagues on the other side _ I think the most fitting thing we could do here today is vote this out of here 99 to zero," Shipley said.

Williams said the NFIB's message that it may use the vote as a "score" on on lawmakers disturbed him. "I really don't care what kind of score that any of these special interest groups give me.... I'm appalled that any special interest or lobbyist will try to tell us how to vote on any issue. I'm more interest in the grade I get from my constituents and the people of Tennessee and the families that have these children that can't hear."

Freshman Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, voted for the bill and called on his colleagues to have courage to do so as well. "To my colleagues in this august body, I want to draw a parallel for you. A number of you are fellow veterans. You know what it's like to be shot at. And as one of the poets of our time said, without fear, courage would be meaningless. I'm calling on you to have courage and vote for this bill. What it boils down to is, we are here to benefit the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee that sent us here. It costs less in the long run to give a child hearing aids so that they can learn how to be a productive citizen than it does to pay for the results of not allowing that to happen. Let me close again with a call for courage, in this case not the courage to stand in front of somebody shooting at you or land a burning airplane or any of those things we think of as demonstrating courage - but moral courage. I think this is the morally right thing to do and I support the bill fully."

Democratic Rep. Eddie Bass of Pulaski said lawmakers shouldn't fear special interest. groups. He thanked Montgomery for the legislation "as a small business owner" himself. "But I am going to say to the new people in here: I got this same threatening email from NFIB, and for anybody who's concerned about that, I got the same threatening letter last year -- both in a letter and verbally. I still voted my conscience and did what was right. I ran without their support because of it and I'm living proof that if you vote what's right, you don't need them."

See the news story here.

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