State of Texas: ‘We’re facing a lot of challenges’ in search of funds to prevent the next power crisis

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Even as the weather warms up, Texans are learning more about the toll of February’s winter storm, which is now blamed for the deaths of 125 people.

Most of those people died from hypothermia. Some died in their own homes, left without heat amid widespread power outages during the deep freeze.

Texas lawmakers have been working on bills to address the power crisis. Lawmakers in Washington are also getting involved.

Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson used the backdrop of a Dallas electrical substation to unveil the bipartisan “Power On” Act. It would provide $500 million in grants to help weatherize critical infrastructure.

Cornyn and Johnson said their bill “aims to prevent a future severe storm, like the one Texas saw in February, from crippling our electrical grid and leaving countless Texans without electricity for days on end.”

Cornyn told reporters Thursday that the proposal would provide $500 million worth of grants to states to “improve and harden the equipment that’s already in place.” Johnson pointed out the legislation calls for states to match some of the funding, which would affect how much they’d ultimately receive in federal grants.

“We cannot promise you when it will go into effect,” Johnson said. “We’re facing a lot of challenges coming up, and we will be in the midst of those challenges.”

In the weeks and months following February’s winter storm, state lawmakers have filed several bills to address problems that led to days-long power outages across Texas. The latest push focuses on keeping power and heat on for vulnerable seniors in long-term care facilities.

State Representative Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) filed House Bill 2325 to require nursing and assisted-living facilities have a generator or another comparable backup power supply on-site in preparation for future weather events or blackouts.

Dozens of senior living facilities were forced to evacuate residents during Winter Storm Uri, according to data presented to the Texas House’s Human Services committee on Tuesday.

“We know of assisted living residents who had to go to homeless shelters for their evacuation sites,” said the state’s Long-term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet.

She testified in favor of the bill, noting that 56 assisted living facilities were forced to evacuate their residents, while nine assisted living facilities had backup power supplies that allowed them to stay in place. There are just over 2,000 assisted living facilities in the state. Comparatively, Ducayet said her data showed 27 skilled nursing facilities evacuated residents, while 176 relied on generators to keep their power on. There are more than 1,220 nursing facilities registered in the state.

Thompson told committee members he had been working on the legislation since 2019, but these challenges that came to light during this storm make it more urgent than ever.

“For the benefit of all Texans, it must be done. Lives depend on it,” Rep. Thompson said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Nursing and assisted living facilities in danger of losing power

Still, Rep. Candy Noble (R-Allen) questioned Thompson about the logistics of implementing requirements like this at facilities of different sizes and in different locations. She also offered insight from personal experience.

“Ours cost about $10,000 just for our little home. I can’t even imagine the cost for a large nursing facility or what it would take to run a generator for 72 hours if you don’t have the ability to run a propane tank” she said. “Some cities don’t allow propane tanks.”

Committee Chair Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) agreed, noting, “‘Who pays?’ is the real question.”

Several industry leaders and nursing home operators testified against the bill, with the cost of the generators being the primary concern.

Caraday Healthcare owns 13 nursing homes in the state. Their Vice President of Facilities and Construction, Doug Bray, estimated generators required by this bill would cost any where from $200,000 to $500,000 per facility. Additionally, he said re-wiring older facilities to meet these proposed requirements would pose additional costs, while “disrupting the lives of thousands” of residents.

“I agree with its intent to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” he said. “But in its current wording, it may cause more harm than good.”

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Leah Gage, Administrator at San Gabriel Rehabilitation & Care Center in Round Rock, also expressed her concerns. She told lawmakers she was proud of how her facility weathered the storm, but she worried about the impact the heavy costs required in this bill would have on facilities like hers.

“These costs do not take into account the issue of lack of space to locate these massive generators or fuel storage tanks on some smaller, older properties,” she said.

Instead, Gage offered several alternative solutions:

  • Have the bill only apply to skilled nursing facilities with building permits issued after August 31, 2023
  • Change the language in the bill to require only selected areas or rooms in the facility to meet this requirement
  • Require 24 to 48 hours worth of fuel to be stored on-site, instead of 72 due to limitations on fuel storage at many facilities
  • Require these changes be funded by the state, instead of added to the Medicaid cost report

Rep. Thompson said he’d be willing to work with the facility operators to find a feasible solution.

“This is a difficult bill: one that we knew was going to be a heavy lift, and one that was going to be controversial,” he said. “I just, in good conscious, can’t say it’s not worth it.”

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He told his fellow lawmakers about similar laws already in place in Maryland and Florida.

“Their example shows that it can be done, and for the benefit of all Texans, it must be done. Lives depend on it,” he said.

Texas leaders vow to fight Biden’s gun control proposals

On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued several new executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence in the United States. The actions were not met well by Republican Texas lawmakers, even though Texas experienced a mass shooting just hours after the announcement.

Biden’s executive actions include tighter restrictions on “ghost guns” and some “red flag” legislation for states.

“I’m gonna use all the resources at my disposal as President to keep the American people safe from gun violence,” Biden said.

“Ghost guns” are homemade guns manufactured legally but made without serial numbers used for tracking. Biden’s new action tightens restrictions on these guns. Although exact details were not made immediately available, the Department of Justice will issue a proposed rule in the next 30 days.

Another executive action Biden announced was a restriction on stabilizing braces, such as the one used in the Boulder, Colorado, shooting.

Biden also asked the DOJ to publish suggested “red flag” laws for states to adopt. These laws allow family members or law enforcement to flag people in crisis who should be temporarily banned for purchasing firearms.

Biden called on the U.S. Senate to pass two House bills, but they face tough opposition in the evenly divided chamber. Republicans in the Senate remain unified against any gun control legislation. 

Only hours after Biden announced his executive actions, a gunman shot five people at Kent Moore Cabinets in Bryan, Texas. A State Trooper was also shot while pursuing the gunman, and one person, 40-year-old Timothy Smith, died. He left behind a wife and two kids, a 14-year-old and an 8-year-old.

Although this isn’t the first mass shooting in Texas, Republican lawmakers say they will continue to fight against new restrictions on guns in Texas. State Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) says the guns used in mass shootings are typically obtained illegally, so new laws will not stop them.

“There’s nothing we can do to legislate the right thing or morality when it comes to this issue,” Perry said. “There’s always going to be those bad people or those people that are not quite right that do bad things with guns. My response is, I want to be able to defend myself. And I’m going to protect my right to defend myself against that situation if it ever comes up. Heaven forbid.”

Some Texas lawmakers want even looser restrictions on guns in Texas. House Bill 1911, authored by State Rep. James White (R-Hillster) and named after the M1911 pistol, proposes to remove the requirement for training and a permit when buying a gun.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re on the left or the right or in the middle, everybody wants their rights,” White said.

Opponents of HB 1911 say licensing rules are important to protect the public.

The bill passed the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and is now waiting to be added to the House Calendar.

Lawmaker’s medical emergency leads to insulin price bill

As he was campaigning in the 2018 election for the seat he currently holds, State Rep. James Talarico decided to walk the distance of his district to campaign. He was healthy, fit and young, so he did not anticipate any issues.

“I hiked Big Bend every year, I wasn’t worried about a 25-mile walk,” Talarico said.

But during the ambitious 25-mile walk, Talarico fell into a state of diabetic ketoacidosis. After being rushed to the emergency room, Talarico found out his blood glucose levels were 900—over 10 times normal levels—and was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes on the spot.

Talarico was able to get the help and medical attention he needed to recover and live a relatively normal life today, but every month he has to pay hundreds of dollars for insulin and other necessary medical supplies—and he’s not alone.

“Since I shared my own story, this week, my office has been flooded with calls and emails and social media messages from folks who suffer from this condition, and from folks whose family members have diabetes, a lot of parents whose children have type one diabetes as well,” Talarico said. “And they were so thankful that someone had spoken about this disease and about their own experience. But most of all, they’re thankful that someone is finally taking action to address this, this skyrocketing cost of insulin.”

Talarico’s first month’s supply of insulin cost him $650. The cost of insulin has increased 1,200% in the past 20 years, which is why Talarico filed House Bill 40 to cap the out-of-pocket cost at $50 for a month’s supply. HB 40 also caps the out-of-pocket cost for insulin supplies, such as needles, sensors and meters.

As of Friday, 103 Texas House members signed onto the bill, giving it a super majority of support. Although HB 40 has bipartisan and bicameral support, some critics say it focuses too much on insurance companies without holding drug manufacturers responsible.

James Dudensing of the Texas Association of Health Plans says the bill does nothing to address the actual cost of the medicine. 

“We’ve seen it go from $20 to almost $350- $400 a vial for Texans and Americans, where in other countries like Canada it only costs $30 a vial,” Dudensing said. “So it is important to lower out of pocket costs for Texans, and we’re already doing that. But having a government mandate to do that potentially raises the cost of health coverage.”

Insurers, like Dudensing, are backing House Bill 18, which has state and health insurance companies leverage their influence with drug manufacturers to negotiate lower prices. Talarico says he also supports HB 18, but says both bills address a very complex issue from different angles.

“The blame doesn’t just fall on the manufacturers,” Talarico parries. “In some cases, insulin products have actually decreased in price yet out of pocket costs have increased over the past few years. So health insurance companies also carry some of the blame with this problem.”

Texas House considers expanding medical marijuana program

All Texans with cancer and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may soon have additional pain management options as Texas lawmakers consider changes to the state’s medical marijuana program.

Texas House Public Health Committee heard testimony on House Bill 1535, which would add more ailments to the list of qualifying conditions, create a research program to learn more about medicinal marijuana, and increase the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol— the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

HB 1535 would add to the qualifying list all forms of cancer, people with acute and chronic pain, veterans with PTSD, and debilitating medical conditions defined by the state.

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the public health committee, proposed the expansion. She authored the 2019 bill to grow the program created in 2015. Last session, the Texas Compassionate Use Program was expanded to include autism, multiple sclerosis and terminal cancer as qualifying conditions.

“I’ve always taken a scientific approach to the program, when more is known, then move the ball a little further down the road,” Klick said in an interview Wednesday.

Childhood cancer left Mike Thompson in bad shape. He underwent 75 surgeries, multiple bone marrow transplants and a 12-hour facial reconstruction surgery stemming from a diagnosis of myeloid leukemia when he was 10. After a 2003 surgery resulted in a damaged nerve, he told lawmakers he became addicted to pain medication.

“Not a day went by when I didn’t take a narcotic,” he testified.

Thompson, now 36, said his addiction could have been avoided if his doctors had the green light to prescribe him medical marijuana. He would qualify for medicinal cannabis if HB 1535 passes.

“I’m not able to use the tools that are available to me to best assist the patients in need,” Dr. Mary Caire of Dallas said.

In addition to the expanded conditions, HB 1535 raises the THC limit tenfold, from 0.5% to 5% by weight.

Some Texans argued 5% was not a high enough THC limit. Chase Bearden of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities said low THC limits lead to gastrointestinal issues. 

“The carrier oil, and the other products inside there after you have to take too much creates GI problems,” Bearden said in his testimony.

The only legal forms of medical marijuana in Texas are lozenge or in CBD oil. Since the THC limit is low, patients have to consume large quantities of carrier oil, which is what makes up the other 99.5% of their medication.

The 2019 expansion was widely supported, but some lawmakers voiced concerns about medical use leading to expansions for other types of marijuana.

“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to a recreational use,” State Sen. Brian Birdwell said in 2019 during debate on the Senate floor.

House Speaker Dade Phelan said Wednesday he had not yet read Klick’s bill, which has 50 House co-authors and brings together some of the chamber’s most liberal and conservative members.

“I’ve supported such legislation in the past as a house member when I had a vote on the House floor,” he noted.

“Having family members who dealt with chronic illnesses, I see no reason why not to give a greater access to to a pharmaceutical— I will call it a pharmaceutical, it is a naturally grown pharmaceutical,” Phelan said. “But whether or not the House has full support of that, I don’t know.”

“We’ve done small steps each session I’ve been here on medicinal marijuana and that we may take another small step this time, I’m not certain,” he added.

Speaker Phelan addressed several topics beyond the medical marijuana bill in his interview with our team, including the controversy over election legislation advancing in the House. Democrats have claimed that bills like House Bill 6, which tighten voting rules, amount to voter suppression. Some large businesses have issued statements against the bills.

“I have the phone numbers of several of those individuals,” Phelan said, saying he planned to call business leaders who have come out against HB 6. “I’m going to ask them to pull up House Bill 6 on their computers and point to me where in that bill they see voter suppression.

The bill would tighten restrictions on people helping disabled voters, and prohibit government officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters.