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Legislative briefs – April 29, 2021

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature met for the 27th legislative day of its 30-day regular session Thursday. Here’s what happened at the State House.

Pharmacy Benefit Managers 

A bill that would put more state regulations on pharmacy benefit managers passed its final vote in the House on Thursday.

Senate Bill 227 from Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, prohibits PBMs from giving people a financial incentive to choose one pharmacy over another. It also says that PBMs can’t require people to use a mail-order pharmacy or a pharmacy affiliated with a pharmacy benefits manager.

Butler, a former pharmacist, has argued for several years that PBMs have at times reimbursed pharmacies less than the cost of medications, putting pharmacies in financial jeopardy. House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, is the bill’s House sponsor and said the bill was about protecting small-town pharmacies from being beaten out by larger pharmacy companies.

“Our hometown pharmacists are the ones who know our families and pay for our little league baseball uniforms,” Ledbetter said.

An amendment from Ledbetter was also passed that includes language that he said would hopefully prevent the bill from being thrown out in the courts if it was challenged. Multiple House members said the amendment took away most of the effectiveness of the bill but Ledbetter said so much work had already been done to come to the compromise and didn’t want to see the bill fail.

Pharmacy benefit managers are third-party groups that manage drug benefits for insurers, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, the state’s largest insurer. BCBS was originally opposed to the bill, arguing that the increased regulations would ultimately lead to higher prescription costs for Alabamians. 

The company was involved in negotiating the compromise amendment. 

“It is our job and the job of our partners to balance access and choice with cost and quality,” said Koko Mackin, BCBS Vice President for corporate communications in a statement to ADN.  “While we understand the concerns of Alabama pharmacists, the original bill contained provisions that would have increased healthcare costs for our customers.  It also contained provisions that would have limited our customers’ ability to choose benefit plans that meet their overall needs.  We are grateful to have been included in the discussions that led to today’s events and appreciate the strong legislative leadership that brought us together. “

The bill passed with a final vote in the House of 71-15 and the Senate agreed with the changes. The bill now goes to the governor.   

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, thanked Butler and Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, for their work on the bill that was several sessions in the making.

“It’s a very complex issue, but it’s worth the time and effort for the people of Alabama,” Reed said. 

Education budget goes to Ivey; General Fund to conference committee

The Alabama Legislature on Thursday sent Gov. Kay Ivey a record-size education for fiscal 2022 but said the General Fund budget needs a bit more work.

Both proposed budgets include increases in spending over the current year and 2% pay increases for state employees and K-12 and community college employees.

Next year’s $7.6 billion education budget includes increases for school spending, colleges and universities and early learning, as well as some correctional education. 

There are also more targeted increases to attract and retain math and science teachers in middle and high schools. 

The proposed $2.4 billion 2022 General Fund is more than $80 million larger than the current year’s budget. The Senate approved it Thursday and sent it back to the House. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, recommended it be sent to a conference committee to work out differences, none of which he said were “earth shattering.” 

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, the Senate General Fund budget committee chairman, said allocations in the budget are very similar to the 2021 budget.

“The biggest difference between last year’s budget and this year’s budget is language that we put into several places requiring more reporting, more oversight and more controls,” Albritton said on the Senate floor.

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, praised his colleagues for the state’s budget situation more than a year after COVID-19 disrupted businesses and lives.

“We’re standing here today passing a budget larger than last year through a pandemic,” Marsh said. “We are one of the very few states, ladies and gentlemen, that are in this position because of the past practices of this body and the House.” 

The conference committee on the General Fund will have to happen next week. There are three working days left in lawmakers’ 2021 session. Passing the budgets is the only thing the Legislature is constitutionally obligated to do each year. 

Legislature approves $80M bond proposal for parks

The Alabama Legislature gave final passage to a bill allowing Alabama voters to decide whether to borrow $85 million to improve state parks.

Because House Bill 565 is a constitutional amendment, it doesn’t need the governor’s signature. Alabamians will see the proposed bond issue on their ballots in 2022.

Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said Thursday was a great day for state parks and the funds would go to projects that will create a return on investment. 

“This will be a big shot in the arm. You’ve got more projects and more amenities like campgrounds and updating any large facilities that have (a return on investment),” Scofield said. “That is more money, recurring revenue for the parks.” 

Free menstrual products for schools passes House 

A bill that would require schools to provide free menstrual products passed the House unanimously on Thursday.

House Bill 88 from Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, would require schools with grades 5-12 to have the products like pads or tampons available for students.

“Period poverty is an issue that effects every nation, in every state, in every city and every person who has a working uterus needs menstrual products every single month,” Hollis said.

The bill passed with a final vote of 97-0 but is unlikely to get a final vote in the Senate as there are only three legislative days left.

Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, voiced some concern on the bill because she is worried it is an unfunded mandate on schools.

“If we are mandating that the schools provide this product for free, then that money shouldn’t come from the teachers or nurses,” Meadows said.

A fiscal note on the bill didn’t give a specific cost to local school board but said the cost would be determined by the number of female students in each school.

Hollis said many schools right now are having the products donated or school nurses and counselors are having to pay for them themselves.

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, said providing period products for schools is important in order to help continue young girls’ education.

“We’re talking about equality, not just menstrual equality, but equality amongst women,” Hall said.

Mental health liability goes to the governor 

A bill that would give regional mental health entities and their employees who work under the Alabama Department of Mental Health the same protections from legal liability given to state entities and employees passed its final vote on Thursday.

Senate Bill 289 from Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, and Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, passed the House unanimously.

The liability protection does not extend to subcontractors or independent contractors of facilities.

Unemployment overpayments bill goes to Governor

A bill that would require the Alabama Department of Labor to recover overpayments in unemployment compensation passed its final vote on Thursday.

Senate Bill 373, the Unemployment Insurance Program Integrity Act of 2021, is sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. He said many of the policies outlined in the bill are already done by the department, but the legislation would put them into law.

The House sponsor, Rep. Rhett Marques, R-Enterprise, said the bill will help save the state millions of dollars.

“It’s not only affecting the taxpayers but businesses in the state,” Marques said.

The final vote was 96-1 with the only nay vote from Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham. The bill now goes to the governor.

Requirements of the bill include weekly checks of unemployment insurance recipients against the Alabama Department of Corrections list of incarcerated individuals to verify eligibility and the adoption of policies to recover overpayments to the “fullest extent possible by state and federal law.”

Home delivery of wine 

Alabamians could start ordering wine shipped directly to their homes starting Aug. 1 if Gov. Kay Ivey signs a bill sent to her Thursday.

Rep. Terri Collins’ House Bill 437 sets up rules and limits on wine delivery from manufacturers and distributors and creates penalties if they’re not followed. The bill received final passage from the Legislature Thursday afternoon.

Collins has tried for several sessions to pass a home delivery bill. This year she was joined in the effort by Sens. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, and Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

“It allows Alabamians to order wines from their favorite wineries, to try new wines if they travel and send wines representing where they’ve been to their homes,” Collins told Alabama Daily News. “This bill puts us like the majority of states.” 

Collins said the final bill was the result of many compromises and it only allows wineries to ship to Alabamians. 

“It was all aimed at not letting retailers ship to homes, only wineries,” Collins said on the House floor. “You can not Amazon wine to your home.” 

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