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Lee Proposes $25M to Combat Hepatitis C


Gov. Bill Lee’s latest budget proposal recommends moving nearly $25 million previously allocated to a controversial education savings account program to an effort to combat hepatitis C in Tennessee prisons. The administration said the proposal — announced Monday by Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter — should not be read as a sign of potential trouble for the education proposal.

Instead, McWhorter said the onetime reallocation was an effort to combat a growing problem in state prisons.

The $24.6 million infusion to combat hepatitis C was among several recommended budget adjustments the administration announced when it appeared in front of the Senate finance committee.

Other recommended adjustments include spending an addition $5.1 million in non-recurring money for various education initiatives, including $2.8 million for literacy programs.

The administration also recommended:

❚ $4 million in recurring funds to allow sheriffs and third parties to transport people with mental health issues;

❚ spending an additional $2 million in one-time money to fund tobacco use prevention grants;

❚ $1 million in recurring funds for a public guardian program that provides assistance to elderly Tennesseans.

The supplemental budget recommendation also called for providing $8.7 million in grants to nonprofit organizations throughout the state. Among the recipients of the grants is the Nashvillebased National Museum of African American Music, which has been recommended to receive $3 million.

The latest funding to combat hepatitis C in Tennessee prisons comes nearly three years after a Tennessean investigation found hepatitis C was largely untreated in the state’s prisons.

In 2016, The Tennessean found only eight of the state’s 3,487 inmates known to have hepatitis C had received treatment.

According to the state Department of Correction’s latest data from June 2018, more than 4,600 inmates at its various facilities had hepatitis C.

“We really need to take a little bit more of an aggressive position in treating those inmates,” McWhorter said, noting there could be an additional financial request next year.

McWhorter told reporters the education savings account money is not technically needed until fiscal year 2021, thus allowing the administration to use it to fund the hepatitis C effort.

l work and the timing of when those dollars are needed, it became evident that we didn’t need it for fiscal year 2020,” he said.

The administration has estimated the education savings account proposal could cost the state $125 million by 2024.

The voucher-type proposal has been approved by several legislative committees in recent weeks but there have been signs of trouble recently. Members in both chambers have expressed concerns about various aspects of the proposal.

Other highlights in the governor’s latest budget proposal include:

❚ $10 million for a Memphis waterfront development grant ;

❚ $8.2 million for a new uranium processing center;

❚ $5 million for an aeronautics economic development fund;

❚ $4 million for disaster relief;

❚ $2 million for entertainment incentives.

Among the notable absences from Lee’s latest budget proposal is funding to families with children with severe disabilities.

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