|Starting yesterday at 11:00 am, the House held a historic, socially-distanced special session, including many firsts. It was certainly a first for a lot of new technology put in place so that we could conduct business. As suggested, most legislators remained in their offices, listening to the debate via Zoom call, and voting remotely from our computer screens. Many systems had to be tested before we could start up the debate, including sound checks from many locations throughout the capitol complex. Several times during the course of the day we were forced to shut down temporarily when those new systems went awry. Both the novelty and the frustration were shared experiences, though, and produced a lot of collegiality at the start of session as we all struggled with similar problems, helped by a skeleton crew of masked aides bustling between our offices solving various technical issues. Overall, we were all happy to be back to legislative work, even under challenging circumstances.
We passed four bills that were also historic in nature, both for what they accomplished, and for what made them necessary: a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods throughout our state, and simmering issues about racial injustice that pervade our communities.
Three bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Two were health care bills, in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on particular communities: House Bill 6001, An Act Concerning Telehealth passed 145 to 0, and House Bill 6003, An Act Concerning Diabetes and High Deductible Health Plans, was 142 to 5. The third, House Bill 6002, An Act Concerning Absentee Voting passed by a vote of 144-2.
The fourth bill, House Bill 6004, An Act Concerning Police Accountability, passed this morning by a vote of 86 to 58.
An Act Concerning Telehealth
Increasing the availability of telehealth services was a priority for our region well before the pandemic, with medical specialists and public transportation often hard to come by. The pandemic heightened the problem, making it risky for even those who could reach their health care providers to do so in person.
The governor temporarily made telehealth services more widely available by executive order, and the practice has gotten high marks from both patients and providers. HB 6001 will allow residents with state regulated plans who have grown to rely on those telehealth visits during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue coverage for these services through March 15, 2021. The bill expands the list of providers who can perform telehealth, ensures that providers will be fairly compensated for telehealth appointments, and includes phone consultations as well as video – critical to those without access to reliable internet.
One part of this bill I was not happy about is its short time frame: it extends only through March 15, 2021. I will be pressing to make sure that deadline is extended once we return to regular session.
An Act Concerning Diabetes and High Deductible Health Plans
HB 6003 expands on legislation previously debated during the 2020 regular session to cap the cost of insulin and establishes two new programs to ensure access to insulin regardless of income or insurance coverage.
The bill caps the cost of insulin at $25 per month, caps non-insulin diabetes drugs at $25 per month, and would implement a monthly cap of $100 on the costs of other supplies related to diabetes, making it the strongest insulin cap in the United States. We would be the first state in the country to cap all three categories.
It creates an emergency insulin program in which a patient with less than a 7 day supply of insulin can receive 30 days' worth of emergency insulin from any Connecticut pharmacy without a prescription.
And, the legislation requires the Department of Social Services commissioner to expand the state’s 340B Program, which offers discount prescription drugs through Federally Qualified Health Centers to residents who don't qualify for Medicaid and are unable to afford a plan that makes diabetes treatment affordable.
I have had conversations with so many of you who have wrestled with the exorbitant costs of insulin and related supplies, and heard many searing and painful stories. Those conversations made me an early and vocal supporter of this bill, and I am thrilled that it has passed the House.
In Connecticut, you need an “excuse” to vote by absentee, and the Governor issued an executive order clarifying that fear of contracting COVID-19 qualified as an excuse for the primary election on August 11, making it possible for any eligible voter to vote by absentee ballot in the primary. Following that order, applications for Absentee Ballots (ABs) for the primary were mailed to all registered Republicans and Democrats living in Connecticut (if you have not received an application, you can download one HERE). The Secretary of State has begun mailing those primary ABs.
House Bill 6002 extends that to the general election on November 3, making it possible for any registered voter to qualify to vote absentee should they wish to do so. The bill also authorizes registrars to apply to designate additional Election Day Registration (EDR) locations and authorizes individuals who are in line by 8:00 p.m. at an EDR location in order to register to vote to both register and vote.
I was a strong supporter of this legislation, which is urgently necessary to protect public health this year, and I am an advocate for the legislature to continue with the process of amending our state constitution in order to allow for both “no-excuse” absentee voting and for early voting, not just during a pandemic, but for all elections.
The most challenging bill on our agenda in this special session was House Bill 6004, An Act Concerning Police Accountability. Because of the many negotiations and caucus meetings on this bill that continued after session had begun, debate on this bill started after 1:00 am this morning. We had a 72-72 tie vote on a critical amendment at 7:30 am, and passed the bill 86 to 58 at 9:00 am. Many of these conversations were difficult, heated, and emotional, and there were strong divisions between the caucuses, and within each caucus. Many of these conversations were about race, and how different the lived experience of my black and brown colleagues is from my own. Many told personal, raw, and powerful stories. Some of the most powerful came from Representative Anthony Nolan, a black police officer who is also a freshman legislator.
Since the twelve-hour listening session held by the Judiciary Committee last Friday, the bill was amended in a number of ways that responded to many of the concerns expressed to me about the bill. Among the changes, language requiring mental health screenings for police officers was changed to make sure that the screening was focused on addressing those mental health issues, not as a litmus test for losing a job. New standards for use of force were delayed to provide adequate time for training. The most hotly contested issue was the original bill’s proposed elimination of “qualified immunity” (a judicially created doctrine protecting police from personal liability when they commit constitutional violations – for more information on qualified immunity, see https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-qualified-immunity-and-what-does-it-have-do-police-reform). I had long conversations with several police officers about that section: they were afraid that, after an act taken in good faith, in the heat of the moment, they could lose their life savings and put their families at risk. As a result of those conversations, I opposed that section of the bill as written. Joined by other legislators, we succeeded in getting that section amended significantly, including: explicitly eliminating any additional financial liability for individual officers, and providing a defense for an officer acting in good faith. We also delayed the effective date to create time to study potential financial consequences for towns, and other related issues, and charged a task force with completing that work. Having reached a constructive compromise, I supported the bill.
All four pieces of legislation now head to the state Senate for consideration. And the legislators are headed home. Having arrived in my Hartford office 25 hours ago, it’s time for some sleep.