Legislators discuss mental health, education and more at briefing Saturday

GTNS photo by Grace King

Sen. Kevin Kinney, left, and Rep. Jarad Klein address citizens concerns at a legislative briefing at the Washington County Courthouse on Saturday, March 16.
GTNS photo by Grace King Sen. Kevin Kinney, left, and Rep. Jarad Klein address citizens concerns at a legislative briefing at the Washington County Courthouse on Saturday, March 16.

Legislators discussed Hillcrest Family Services mental health center closures, solar energy, school choice vouchers and the judicial nominating process during a briefing on Saturday, March 16, at the Washington County Courthouse.

Sen. Rich Taylor, Sen. Kevin Kinney, Rep. Joe Mitchell and Rep. Jarad Klein addressed citizens’ questions and concerns at the last briefing of the 2019 legislative session.

Hillcrest Family Services

Hillcrest Family Services announced at the beginning of March that they would be closing seven of their 39 programs in Iowa within the next six months because they are not financially sustainable. The programs expected to close are the Mental Health Center in Henry County, programs in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and three of their programs in Dubuque.

Julie Heiderscheit, president and chief executive officer of Hillcrest, said the programs were suffering from lack of payment, funding and insurance reimbursements.

Taylor said that closing the Mental Health Center in Henry County would “devastate” the community and the 600 patients it serves. Taylor said that Hillcrest believes they are owed $1.3 million from the Managed Care Organization (MCO) AmeriHealth. AmeriHealth believed they owed Hillcrest $0.

AmeriHealth ended up paying Hillcrest $450,000 last week.

“I believe us getting involved (AmeriHealth) is going, ‘We don’t really want the legislature coming down on us,’ so they gave them a little bit of money, about one-third of it,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Michael Randol, Iowa’s Medicaid director, needs more authority to make a decision about whether Hillcrest of AmeriHealth is right and not just suggest to the MCO that they pay Hillcrest.

Mitchell agreed that Randol needs to put more pressure on AmeriHealth. “Obviously, if we lose Hillcrest in Mt. Pleasant, these people will have to be shifted to other cities and it will make the burden even worse,” he said.

Kinney said there are not enough agencies in Mt. Pleasant to absorb Hillcrest’s clients if the Mental Health Center closes.

“We’ve got to continue to work with MCOs to get them to pay what they owe our providers,” he said.

Solar energy

Solar energy bill, House File 476, would increase the state tax credit from $5 million to $10 million, helping more businesses, farmers and homeowners who want to install solar panels to control utility costs or reduce their carbon footprint.

However, two other proposed bills, House Study Bill 185 and Senate Study Bill 1201, would impose fees on customers who use solar energy.

Klein said the bills are a “power grab” by larger companies like Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy.

“I think it’s very unfortunate Alliant is threatening to raise their rates to the amount they’re talking about right now,” Klein said. “There’s a handful of us who are putting the brakes on, trying to hold it back.”

Taylor said the bills would hurt small solar energy companies and providers.

“I’m a no vote,” Taylor said. “I can read a loophole in that bill. If I can, I guarantee you a lawyer can. I don’t think it will protect our small companies or our providers. It’s a grab by big energy — Alliant and MidAmerica.”

Mitchell also said he was leaning toward a heavy no.

“It looks like a money grab from MidAmerica to me, and I think MidAmerica and Alliant are acting as monopolies in our state. I’m not in the business of trying to get them more money,” he said.

School choice

A school choice bill that would give parents the decision on how to spend public money on their child’s education is currently going through the legislature. The bill would allow public education money to go toward private and home schooling with vouchers.

Klein said the bill didn’t move out of the House last year and it won’t move out of the House this year.

“Not all private schools want it,” Klein said. “When you take the vouchers, they also come with strings attached. Some of them are going to be religious institutions that don’t want to follow all the same everything that might come with public dollars. It’s not this clean cut every private school wants vouchers.”

“Vouchers — bad idea,” Taylor said, adding that they would cut school district’s funding per student by about $2,000. “Our public schools then couldn’t survive on that funding,” he said.

Taylor said it opens the door for parents to take the money, say they are home schooling their children and not do it.

“For those who would actually use the money to send their kids to school, that would be OK because they already had planned on sending them to private school. It would be helping them further their child’s education, but it would leave way too many kids behind with no education at all,” Taylor said.

Both Mitchell and Kinney also said they do not support vouchers.

Judicial Nominating Commission

The Iowa Senate passed a bill that would reform Iowa’s Judicial Nominating Commission last week. The bill removes the role of lawyers in electing other lawyers to the commission, and instead gives the governor and legislative leaders the power to name members of the commission. The bill still needs to pass through the House.

Mitchell is in support of the bill, saying judges will still be chosen based on merits.

“I personally think the process is already political,” Mitchell said. “If you think the Bar Association isn’t already political, I think you’re kidding yourself.

“Essentially, we’re just substituting the Bar Association for the legislature,” Mitchell continued. “I think there’s more accountability there because you elect your legislators and you don’t elect the Bar Association.”

Klein, however, said there aren’t enough votes in the House to pass the bill as it stands.

“I understand the balance we’re trying to strike here, but right now there aren’t the votes in the House to pass it,” he said.

Kenney said he is concerned if legislative leaders get to choose judicial court nominees, money will become involved.

“If you really want to be a judge and are a Democrat, you can go to one of the Dem leaders and go I’ll give you $100,000 toward your campaign,” Kenney said. “That’s the part of it I really think we could be going down a slippery slope on.”

Kenney said he doesn’t care if a judge is Democrat of Republican, all he wants is a fair court.

Taylor said the current system is “working fine” and lawyers should be able to choose other lawyers to be Iowa’s judges.

“We ask doctors to look at things that concern doctors, we look at lawyers to look at things that concern law,” Taylor said.