Legislative News – Feb. 6: Insurance coverage for EpiPens; Funding school field trips; Firearms bill

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The latest news, press releases from the Rhode Island General Assembly.

02/06/2020Sen. Hanna Gallo;Sen. Gallo to introduce bill allowing school committees to fund school field trips out of budget
02/06/2020Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi;Shekarchi bill would require full insurance coverage for EpiPens
02/06/2020Sen. Harold Metts;Metts proposes reform of asset forfeiture law
02/06/2020Rep. Evan P. Shanley;Rep. Shanley introduces Rhode Island Secure Choice Retirement Savings Trust Act
02/06/2020Rep. Daniel P. McKiernan;House passes firearms bill requiring notification of police in gun buyer’s hometown

Sen. Gallo to introduce bill allowing school committees to fund school field trips out of budget

STATE HOUSE — Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick will introduce legislation that would allow school committees to budget funding for school field trips.

The legislation would guarantee that all students have the same ability to attend field trips. It would also allow schools to raise funds to supplement field trip funding.

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Last year, many school districts canceled field trips in the wake of an advisory opinion given by former Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken Wagner. He construed current policy to mean that that school departments may not charge students to participate in public school field trips. Since several school districts interpreted that no fund raising could be done for these trips either, many officials were left confused, believing that the policy effectively eliminated the field trips.

“That advice was confusing to many, and as a result, school districts have been canceling their field trips.” said Senator Gallo, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “That is an incredibly unfortunate — and I’m quite sure unintended —consequence of the letter. The goal of this legislation is to provide clarity.”

The legislation proposed by Senator Gallo would require that the field trips meet Rhode Island’s basic education program regulations and would allow parents or guardians to donate toward the cost of the trip.

“The bill does not, however, allow schools to directly ask families for money to pay for field trips because schools can’t do that,” explained Senator Gallo. “Schools can let families know that donations are always welcome, but asking parents to contribute would  create a two-tier education system — one for students who can afford to pay for valuable experiences like field trips, and one for students who can’t. That is not what public education is about. Students who sit next to each other in a public school classroom should have the same opportunities available to them.”

Shekarchi bill would require full insurance coverage for EpiPens

STATE HOUSE – House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi has introduced legislation to require health insurers in Rhode Island to cover the full cost of life-saving epinephrine injectors, commonly known by the brand name, EpiPen.

The legislation (2020-H 7265) would address the high cost of the device, which is used to open the airway of severe allergy sufferers during an anaphylactic attack. Mylan, the manufacturer of the brand-name Epi-Pen, raised its price by about 500 percent between 2009 and 2016 at time when it controlled up to 95 percent of the market for the device. Even patients with prescription coverage may be saddled with high costs for the drug, which can be more than $600 per twin-pack.

The injectors expire 18 months from when they are manufactured, so patients need to purchase new ones frequently regardless of whether they are ever used. Patients also need to have one available at all times, so they may need to keep several at once. Many of those at-risk for anaphylaxis are children, who may be exposed to their allergen at school or through other children. 

Leader Shekarchi said he introduced the legislation because he believes no one should be left at risk for death because they can’t afford the price of epinephrine injectors.

“A lot of families simply can’t afford to spend $500 or $600 on an injector that they hope they’ll never use. Unfortunately, that means a lot of those families have little choice but to take a chance on that hope, and go without this lifesaving medicine,” said Leader Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “No one should be put in that position. Epinephrine is an absolutely necessity for people whose lives are at risk from anaphylaxis, and it should be totally covered by insurance. Nothing should make a person with severe allergies take a chance on living without it.”

The bill would require that all group health plans and health insurance issuers that provide prescription benefits in Rhode Island cover prescribed epinephrine injectors and cartridges without any copayment or deductible. The requirement would take effect for plans issued or renewed beginning Jan.1, 2021.

The bill is similar to legislation adopted in Illinois last year, when that state became the first to adopt such a requirement.

The legislation, which was introduced Jan. 23 and has been assigned to the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, is cosponsored by Rep. Mia A. Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln), Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth), Rep. Camille F.J. Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick), and Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence).

Metts proposes reform of asset forfeiture law

STATE HOUSE – In Rhode Island, a family can lose cash, a vehicle or other property as a result of a criminal investigation, and may never get them back, even if the result is ruling of not guilty.

The reason is a state civil asset-forfeiture law that has been described as “awful” by the Institute for Justice, which rates Rhode Island’s forfeiture law a D-.

Sen. Harold M. Metts is once again sponsoring legislation that aims to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws to prevent Rhode Islanders from having their property unfairly seized or from facing an uphill battle to get them back when no crime has been proven.

“Rhode Island’s asset forfeiture law is really stacked against the common person. Police have a low burden of proof to seize property. But the person whose property was taken — even if there was no crime or they had nothing to do with one — has a higher standard of proof, and bears the entire burden of proving it should be given back. They are guilty until proven innocent. Nearly everything about this law goes against the American ideals of justice, and it is absolutely ripe for reform,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence).

In order to seize property, law enforcement need only have probable cause that a crime has occurred. But to get it back, the owner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their property wasn’t forfeitable, and must also bear the burden of proof that they had no involvement in any illegal use of their property. Often those involved cannot afford the cost of a lawyer to navigate the process, or the cost of a lawyer exceeds the value of the property seized, and the affected person gives up trying to get it back.

Additionally, police departments are allowed to keep 90 percent of forfeiture proceeds, providing them an incentive to wield forfeiture power.

Senator Metts’ bill would generally require a court order for property to be seized, and would provide a pretrial hearing process in order to determine that a seizure was done legally. It would protect innocent owners of property by placing the burden of proof on the state to prove that an owner knew the property was being used in connection with a crime. It would require automatic return of property within three days in cases of not-guilty findings, dismissal of charges, an innocent owner finding, and other situations where the property need not be forfeited. It would also exempt homesteaded real estate, vehicles worth less than $10,000, and U.S. currency totaling $1,000 or less from being seized.

The legislation also provides for greater reporting and oversight of seized property, and places some limits on retention and sale of seized property by law enforcement agencies.

The 29-page bill is designed to protect the rights of private property owners while maintaining the core purpose of asset forfeiture, which is to ensure that those who commit crimes are not allowed to keep ill-gotten profits.

Nationwide studies have demonstrated that asset forfeiture typically hits minority and poor communities the hardest.

“Like many justice issues, forfeiture hurts the poor and people of color, who are also the people who are least likely to have the resources to fight to get their property back. But this is an  issue that unites people throughout the political spectrum. This bill has the support of many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who feel strongly that government’s ability to take individuals’ personal property should be very limited,” said Senator Metts.

Rep. Shanley introduces Rhode Island Secure Choice Retirement Savings Trust Act

STATE HOUSE — Rep. Evan P. Shanley (D-Dist. 24, Warwick) has introduced legislation that would create a state-run retirement savings program for employees who do not have access to a retirement savings plan through work.

“Secure Choice is a way to give all workers access to a secure and affordable retirement savings plan,” said Representative Shanley. “Participation would be completely voluntary for employees, but it would allow whole groups of people to plan for their financial future, and it would develop a culture of financial literacy for people who have historically believed that they’re in no position to save for retirement.”

The legislation (2020-H 7461) would establish a public corporation that would act as an investment board for the retirement savings trust. It would also allow for the creation of IRA-type retirement investments managed by the investment board.

Under the terms of the bill, all eligible employees would be enrolled in the program unless the employee elects not to participate. An eligible employee may elect to opt out of the program by making a notation on an opt-out form. Any employer may choose to have a payroll deposit retirement savings arrangement to allow employee participation. The arrangement would gradually become mandatory, with various deadlines set for businesses depending on the number of employees.

Employers who already offer a retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k) would be exempt from the requirements of the retirement savings program.

Secure Choice automatically enrolls all full-time employees working for qualified businesses into a direct deduction retirement savings plan. These employees can choose any level of direct contribution they would like, including opting out of the program entirely. Unless otherwise stipulated by the employee, workers will have 3 percent of their paycheck automatically deducted into an IRA.

Employees who opt out of the program would still be able to join during open enrollment periods.

“It’s not realistic to expect small business owners to establish a defined retirement savings plan for their employees when they’re focused on ways to make their businesses grow,” said Representative Shanley. “Yet business owners are naturally worried about retirement security for their employees. This is a real need for many Rhode Islanders and the Secure Choice plan can meet this need.”

House passes firearms bill requiring notification of police in gun buyer’s hometown

STATE HOUSE — The House of Representatives today passed legislation that would require gun dealers to notify the police in a gun buyer’s hometown.     

The bill (2020-H 1703Aaa), introduced by Rep. Daniel P. McKiernan (D-Dist. 7, Providence), would require gun sellers to forward firearm applications to the police department of the city or town where the buyer resides, or the State Police if the buyer lives in the town of Exeter, which has no local police department, or another state.

The bill comes in the wake of an incident last year where a resident of Westerly purchased a gun from a firearms dealer in Richmond and used it to kill the manager of an affordable housing complex.

Although Richmond Police conducted background checks, they were not aware that the buyer had a history with Westerly Police, including threats to buy a gun to kill himself and his estranged wife, which led to a stay at Butler Hospital.

“This is a simple matter of improving communication between law enforcement agencies,” said Representative McKiernan. “Local police departments are much more likely to have information regarding the mental health of a potential gun buyer. If there are concerns for the safety of the purchaser or others, then the police in the gun buyer’s community can take steps to keep the other agencies notified and potentially avert another tragedy.”

The measure now moves to the Senate where similar legislation (2020-S 2154) has been introduced by Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere (R-Dist. 38, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly).