Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, during a meeting of the House Health and Human Resources Committee this year. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Today, lawmakers in the House Education Committee voted to advance a bill to limit some classroom discussions of race after striking down amendments offered by Democrats. But first, a database that could save West Virginia millions of dollars in health care costs is on the chopping block.

A little-known database with big potential

It’s not just gas, food and cars becoming more of a drain on Americans’ wallets: health care prices are up too.

From 1991 to 2020, state spending on health care increased on average by about 6% each year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Josh Brown, the executive director of the Clarksburg free clinic Health Access, has noticed both the impact rising health costs have had on his patients and the lack of action politicians have taken to address it. 

“Neither party has been able to fix this,” he said. “And here we are. Thirty years later, and we still have a number of people…who are falling through the cracks.”

In theory, West Virginia already has a tool some other states have successfully used to keep health care costs down: an All-Payer Claims Database, a large data set that collects information about every cost covered by insurers. Analyzing the data can help state governments or academics determine where unnecessary expenses exist and how to reduce them. Last year, a nonprofit in Virginia used the database to determine how the state could save $67 million in health care costs.

The benefit here is that both the states themselves and individual insurers could save money, said U.S. Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican from Utah and the National Association of Health Data Organizations executive director.

But despite existing on paper, West Virginia’s version of this database has been in the works since 2011 and has yet to be fully implemented. And it may never be: state legislators are on the precipice of eliminating it. A bill ending West Virginia’s iteration of All-Payers passed the House and is set to be up for passage in the Senate this week. 

Bill sponsor and House Health and Human Resources Committee chair Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said the database costs, estimated at $1 million, were unnecessary because the federal government already collects the data. Her Senate counterpart, Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, said the database would put West Virginians’ personal information at risk of being misused.

“I don’t know if it’s good, if it’s bad,” Maroney said. “It’s maybe not necessary. I think they’ve really got too detailed with the information that we’re collecting to where it became almost an invasion of privacy of individuals.”

According to Thurston and Josephine Porter, director of the University of New Hampshire Institute for Health Policy and Practice, those reasons are misunderstandings of how these databases work. Thurston said the federal government only collects hospital data and ignores many other health care costs, such as prescription drug costs. With regards to privacy, Porter noted that most states solve that problem easily by keeping that data more protected than most health information is stored. 

Unlike the perceived problems noted by the health chairs, Porter believes the opportunity cost of eliminating this database to be real. 
“West Virginia, as a whole, would be at somewhat of an information disadvantage,” she said. “[Information] to better understand its own needs and opportunities.” —Allen Siegler

Bill to limit classroom discussions of race advances

Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, speaks during a House Education Committee meeting last week. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Members of the House Education Committee on Monday advanced the “Anti-Racism Act,” which proponents say will stop public school teachers in West Virginia from telling students that any race is inherently superior or inferior to another. But they stopped short of extending that prohibition to discussions of different religious groups after the failure of a Democrat-offered amendment today in the House Education Committee.

On its face, the bill bans teachers from instructing students that any race is superior or inferior to another, but critics see a different outcome: that the bill’s nebulous definitions of prohibited content, along with the threat of a potential lengthy investigation of any reported violation, substantiated or not, will cause teachers to self-censor and avoid discussions of race in classrooms.

Del. Bill Ridenour, R-Jefferson, urged his colleagues to pass the bill. “I believe this is an honest effort,” he said. “This is a bill that keeps us from being pitted against each other.”

Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, one of the few Black lawmakers in the Legislature and a firm opponent of the bill, introduced an amendment to similarly ban teachers from instruction that any one religious group is inherently superior or inferior to another.

“If the intent of the bill as stated by some of the supporters of it — that if those things are true — then why wouldn’t you include religion?” Hornbuckle asked.

The bill was up for discussion in the committee on the same day that another Senate-originated bill moved to the House, mandating public schools display the words “in God we trust” conspicuously on their campuses.

Noting that, Hornbuckle said, “by doing that, they are promoting a message that I guess Christians who believe in God are inherently superior to others, which is in direct conflict with their Senate bill on anti-racism.”

Hornbuckle’s amendment failed on party lines, with three Democrats in favor and 22 Republicans opposed. Del. Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, was the only member who spoke in opposition to it.

“The bill as is is sufficient,” Clark said. “We don’t need to add religion.”

Another amendment introduced by Hornbuckle that failed on party lines was to introduce a requirement that teachers receive training in cultural competency.

Testifying before the committee, Deputy State Superintendent Michelle Blatt, as well as the leaders of three different teachers’ unions, said they were unaware of any complaints alleging recent behavior that would have violated this bill.

“In this bill of ‘anti-racism,’ what are we doing for minority groups and marginalized folks?” Hornbuckle asked. “Don’t be intellectually dishonest about it.” 
He added that the bill did nothing to address issues of racism that the Legislature has been warned are actively happening in state classrooms, like discipline disparities. —Ian Karbal

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.