Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,

It is my understanding that state employers have to pay the “family rate” even for single employees. As a state, we could save a great deal of money if we could purchase single policies for single employees. Why can’t this be done? It would save about $400/single employee.

Claire Althoff

Mooreton

Thanks for writing! I contacted the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System. Here’s what Executive Director Sparb Collins said:

“The state does not pay the “family rate” for single employees. The health insurance rate for state employees is a blended rate, which takes into account the number of employees that are single and the number of employees that are married.

“The single rate and family rates are averaged to have one rate for all employees. This method is more accurate for budgeting. If the traditional single/family method was used during budgeting, it would be necessary to estimate the number of family and single premiums for the budget period for each agency.

“(This) could result in overestimating the number of family premiums, which would over budget premiums for that agency or overestimating the number of single premiums, which could underfund the premiums for that agency.”

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Latest bills signed by the governor

BISMARCK–Here’s what Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law last week:

1206: Western Area Water Supply Authority

1003: higher ed budget

1001: legislative budget

1002: judicial budget

1004: Health Department budget

1005: Indian Affairs Commission budget

1006: North Dakota Aeronautics Commission budget

1007: Veterans budget

1020: Extension Service, Northern Crops Institute, Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, research centers budgets

1025: Comprehensive Tobacco Control Advisory Committee budget

1057: angel fund investment tax credit

2001: Governor’s Office budget

2002: Secretary of state’s budget

2005: State treasurer budget

2006: Tax commissioner budget

2007: Labor commissioner budget

2008: Public Service Commission budget

2009: Ag Department budget

2016: Adjutant general budget

2021: Workforce Safety and Insurance budget

2057: Commerce Department budget

Abstinence bill passes Legislature

BISMARCK–After weeks of deadlock in the conference committee, the final version of the abstinence bill breezed through the full Legislature late today.

Here’s what will be added to state law:

Beginning July 1, 2012, each school district and nonpublic school shall ensure that the portion of its health curriculum which is related to sexual health includes instruction pertaining to the risks associated with adolescent sexual activity and the social, psychological and physical health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity before and outside of marriage.

The bill now goes to Gov. Jack Dalrymple for his signature. What do you think about this compromise bill?

Abstinence bill update

BISMARCK–I’ve noticed several people coming to my blog today looking for updates on the abstinence bill.

Nothing has been decided yet. The committee in charge of negotiating the bill has met eight times without coming to a resolution on the matter.

The House is sticking to its position that this is a local control issue and specific curriculum should not be written into state law. The Senate is sticking to its position that specific guidelines are needed so that they’re taught.

Here’s the House version of the bill:

“Beginning July 1, 2012, each school district shall ensure that its curriculum for health includes the exposure of students to abstinence-based concepts.”
 
Here’s the Senate version of the bill:
  
“Beginning July 1, 2012, each school district shall ensure that its curriculum for health has as its objective to teach the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity. The curriculum must:
1. Explain why abstinence from sexual activity until marriage provides safety from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and other associated health issues;

2. Teach how to reject sexual advances, including self-defense;

3. Inform how drugs, alcohol, irresponsible use of social media, and peer pressure can negatively influence unhealthy sexual decisionmaking and lead to aggressive sexual behavior; and

4. Explain the negative influences of the sex-saturated media that present teen sexual activity as an expected norm with few risks or negative consequences.

—If you were on this conference committee, how would you resolve the differences between the two bills?

Abstinence bill goes to conference committee

BISMARCK–The state House isn’t ready to sign off on the abstinence bill just yet.

The House Education Committee gave a “do not concur” to the bill this morning. Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said there are questions about the amendments added by the Senate.

This means the bill will go to conference committee, where members of the Senate and the House work out their differences over the bill.

Heading into the Senate, House Bill 1229 simply directed school districts to ensure their health curriculum includes exposing students to abstinence-based concepts by July 2012.

However, a floor amendment added curriculum criteria to the bill, which passed on a 39-8 vote.

The bill now says each school district shall ensure its health curriculum has as its objective to teach the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.

The curriculum must:

- Explain why abstinence from sexual activity until marriage provides safety from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and other associated health issues.

- Teach how to reject sexual advances, including self-defense.

- Inform how drugs, alcohol, irresponsible use of social media and peer pressures can negatively influence unhealthy sexual decision making and lead to aggressive sexual behavior.

-Explain the negative influence of the sex-saturated media that present teen sexual activity as an expected norm with few risk or negative consequences.

Kelsch said she didn’t understand what the amendments do and if they mean abstinence-only curriculum would be taught. That wasn’t the intent of the House-approved bill, which also had local control, she said.

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, a supporter of the bill, said the amendments were not for abstinence-only curriculum, but to make abstinence the primary objective.

The conference committee will likely meet early next week.

Senate passes amended abstinence bill

BISMARCK—The North Dakota Senate has approved specific criteria for abstinence education that they want to see taught in North Dakota schools.

Heading into the Senate, House Bill 1229 simply directed school districts to ensure their health curriculum includes exposing students to abstinence-based concepts by July 2012.

However, a floor amendment added curriculum criteria to the bill, which passed on a 39-8 vote.

The bill now says each school district shall ensure its health curriculum has as its objective to teach the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.

The curriculum must:

- Explain why abstinence from sexual activity until marriage provides safety from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and other associated health issues.

- Teach how to reject sexual advances, including self-defense.

- Inform how drugs, alcohol, irresponsible use of social media and peer pressures can negatively influence unhealthy sexual decision making and lead to aggressive sexual behavior.

-Explain the negative influence of the sex-saturated media that present teen sexual activity as an expected norm with few risk or negative consequences.

Sen. Larry Luick, R- Fairmount, proposed the amendment, saying there is “a huge problem” in schools of understanding “the necessity of staying away from sexual activity.”

Sen. Spencer Berry, R-Fargo, also supported the bill, saying it’s important that youth hear the message of health-related issues that can result from sexual activity.

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, said North Dakota needs the law.

“We need to specify very clearly for our teachers the direction that we want them to go,” she said.

Sen. Layton Freborg, R-Underwood, said he believes in teaching abstinence but said the amended bill is not the answer. Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, agreed, saying local schools should have say in the content of the curriculum that they’re supposed to teach.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, said the bill is not a statement of policy, but micromanagement from the state Legislature. She called it a “complete overreaction” to the concept of policymaking.

The House now needs to review the amended bill, and legislators need to determine what will be the final version.

Legislative notebook: schools, health insurance, eating disorders

BISMARCK–North Dakota schools will soon be required to conduct lockdown drills.

The Senate voted 44-2 to approve House Bill 1215 on Thursday.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said tragic events across the nation have resulted in a need for the drills. The practice will help ensure lives are protected in schools, she said.

Health insurance

North Dakota will have a state law saying residents are not required to have health insurance coverage and can’t be fined if they don’t.

The Senate voted 33-13 to approve House Bill 1165 on Thursday. The legislation is one of several pieces promoted by Republicans this session to show their opposition to federal health care reform.

Eating disorders

The House killed a bill that would have created an eating disorder training program and asked for a state study on eating disorders.

Senate Bill 2354 directed the state Health Department to establish a training program to assist in early recognition and intervention of eating disorders. The department was then to share information with health professionals.

Rep. Vonnie Pietsch, R-Casselton, said legislators felt this was not the time to begin new projects that had a potential to become permanent ongoing programs.

The Health Department didn’t ask for funding for the projects in its budget and said it would need to contract with professionals to design and develop a training program, she said.

Rep. Lisa Meier, R-Bismarck, supported the bill, saying the cost was minimal if it helped save lives. The bill had an $85,000 fiscal note. Rep. David Rust, R-Tioga, also supported the bill.

“We live in a world where thin is beautiful and if you don’t think that girls in particular every day don’t think about their weight and come up with ways that are harmful to themselves, you’re wrong,” he said.

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, said no one disputes that eating disorders are a real issue. However, the bill had state bureaucrats developing a training program to tell medical professionals how to deal with a medical condition, he said.

The bill died on a 31-57 vote.

Conservative lawmakers voice opposition to federal health care law

BISMARCK – Conservative North Dakota lawmakers want the state to do more to fight the federal health care law.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has already joined a federal lawsuit filed by 25 other state attorneys general challenging the constitutionality of the law.

North Dakota Republican legislators have also filed several pieces of legislation this session to show their opposition to the law. Legislators had a news conference on Thursday to discuss some of their efforts.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, thinks the Legislature needs to do all it can to support the rights of North Dakotans to choose whether they purchase health insurance.

One of the most controversial aspects of the federal law is the mandate for people to have health insurance or face a financial penalty.

Kasper is the prime sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 3014, which would amend the state constitution to prohibit any law from compelling anyone to purchase health insurance or participate in any health care system.

If the resolution is approved by the Legislature, the matter would go to a public vote on the 2012 primary ballot.

Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, also supports putting the matter to a vote.

“I believe that it’s time to give the citizens of North Dakota an opportunity to weigh in on what many of us believe to be an overreaching federal government,” he said.

Rep. Phil Mueller, D-Valley City, was not at the news conference but later said he doesn’t support the proposal.

“This is just political posturing, in my opinion,” Mueller said.

He said he respects the rights of voters, but the federal law is comprehensive and to expect North Dakota voters to be experts on it would be unfair to them.

While there are judges who have ruled against the law’s constitutionality, there are also those who say it is within the realm of the federal government, Mueller said.

The North Dakota resolution would change the state constitution, but there are also bills that would address the health care issue in state law. The House passed House Bill 1165, which would put wording into North Dakota law that health insurance coverage is not required. The bill passed on a 69-25 vote and is now before the Senate.

On Thursday, conservative lawmakers also expressed their wish to bring back House Bill 1291, which would enter the state into an interstate health care freedom compact.

The House voted 56-36 to defeat the bill, with bipartisan support against it. The House refused to reconsider the bill the day after the vote.

Kasper said he wants to bring back the compact concept in another bill this session. Joining with other states would allow for strength in numbers to take on the federal government, he said.

Rep. Stacey Dahl, R-Grand Forks, was among those who voted against the compact bill. She said it goes too far and isn’t necessary.

“We already have a legal challenge by the state of North Dakota against the federal health care act,” she said. “I think that we need to allow that adjudication to proceed and play out.”

A federal judge who declared President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul unconstitutional ruled Thursday that states must continue implementing it while the case makes its way through the courts.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson was responding to a request from Obama administration attorneys who sought to ensure states follow the law until their challenge to it is resolved.

Three other federal judges have upheld the law and a fourth in Virginia has ruled against it, but that ruling is also on hold until appeals are heard.

The issue is widely expected to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Today’s Ask Your Government

Dear Teri,
Who in the state is responsible for inspecting the cleanliness of restaurants, cafes, food handlers? Since this is obviously paid by the taxpayers, why do we have to go on a computer to look up how individual restaurants score?

Shouldn’t this info be displayed on the front door of each facility inspected? Or at least published in local newspapers? When we lived in Bloomington, Minn., all restaurants tested during the week (and) their scores were on television one night a week on a news program.

Richard Roberts
West Fargo

Thanks for writing! I contacted the North Dakota Department of Health and received a response from  Kenan Bullinger, director of the Division of Food and Lodging. Here’s what he said:

“The North Department of Health’s Division of Food and Lodging, in addition to eight local health units (city and county), are responsible for licensing and inspecting restaurants in North Dakota.

“Every regulatory jurisdiction licenses restaurants on an annual basis. Those license fees help pay for the costs of conducting those inspections. All copies of inspection reports are open records and available to the public, but the way that information is distributed is decided by that agency.

“Some regulatory jurisdictions have the results of inspections available online through their respective agency websites. Some other states and local jurisdictions have used a grading system for restaurants after
each inspection. Some of those require the posting of a letter grade within the window of every restaurant.

“Those systems have received mixed reviews from the public, industry and regulatory agencies. We continue to try and find the best way to get that information to the public, while keeping our primary focus on making sure that restaurants prepare and handle food in the safest way possible to reduce the possibility of foodborne outbreaks.

“Open records requests are not the only way North Dakotans get information on restaurant inspections. It’s important to note that about half of restaurant inspections are completed by the state and the others are completed by local agencies. As mentioned earlier, some local health regulatory jurisdictions in North Dakota use their websites for getting that information out to the public.

“However, those that have developed their computer systems to be able to provide that inspection information have noted that they have very few “hits” to their websites. The North Dakota Department of Health has also explored the possibility of having software written to be able to provide that inspection information on our website.

“We felt the costs of doing so versus the benefits were just not feasible at this time. However, if there was a situation where there was an imminent public health threat to the general public at a restaurant, we would take immediate action to close that restaurant, get the situation corrected and make sure that information was released to the general public.

“However, as stated earlier, our primary focus is to make sure that restaurants prepare and handle food in the safest way possible so the potential for foodborne outbreaks is reduced. We take great pride in the
fact that North Dakota has very few confirmed foodborne outbreaks originating from restaurant prepared food.

“That is a credit to the state and local health inspectors that are doing a great job of providing thorough and educational restaurant inspections, keeping those facilities in compliance and reducing the possibility of foodborne outbreaks.”

I also decided to ask Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon about the topic. Here’s what he said:

“We have done stories on these inspections and run lists with the data over the years. Those stories and lists always generate a lot of reader interest.”

Do you have a question for a North Dakota government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.
E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).
You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press
Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, N.D. 58505.
Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

UPDATED: UND med school funding stripped from HB1353

BISMARCK—The North Dakota House approved an amended bill on Wednesday that no longer uses tobacco settlement money to expand the University of North Dakota’s medical school.

House Bill 1353 was stripped of the $28.9 million for a new health sciences facility and $5.8 million to support additional students and residencies.

The revised bill states the new mission of UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences is to increase the health care work force in the state by educating physicians, with a focus on primary care physicians, and other health professionals.

The bill also revises the school’s advisory council and its duties. This includes coming up with recommendations to increase the number of primary care physicians in the state and the number of resident training positions for primary care physicians.

The bill also directs that UND students fill at least 80 percent of the resident training positions in the state after commitments to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the Indians Into Medicine program are met.

The bill also seeks collaboration with local organizations and political subdivisions to place primary care physicians in rural areas of the state.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said North Dakota has a large number of physicians nearing retirement, and there’s a great need for physicians in rural North Dakota.

“So, at some point, this body is going to need to address how do we increase the number of physicians in the state of North Dakota,” she said.

The bill passed with no further discussion. It now moves to the Senate.

Medical school Dean Joshua Wynne said he appreciates the Legislature’s clarification of the school’s role of graduating more health care workers for the state. But he’s concerned about how to get there.

The medical school remains convinced that its plan to expand class size and add a new building to make room for the additional students is the best plan, Wynne said. He hopes lawmakers will focus on that during the second half of the session.

The original version of House Bill 1353 involving the tobacco settlement money created controversy. Anti-tobacco supporters pointed to voters approving Measure 3 and the need to fund tobacco prevention and control programs.

Supporters said using settlement money for UND would help more people by alleviating the shortage of health care workers.

When asked if funding for the medical school would come up in Senate Appropriations in the second half of the session, Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said everything is on the table.

However, he said a proposal to fund the expansion by increasing the tax on a pack of cigarettes was unlikely to resurface.

The proposal to use tobacco settlement money for the expansion is also unlikely to resurface, Holmberg said.

UND officials will testify before Senate Appropriations on March 10, Wynne said.

Grand Forks Herald reporter Tu-Uyen Tran contributed to this report.