Sen. Lamar Alexander gives updates on funding, health care, health threats

Here are some of the things I worked on last week:

Senate committee approves fourth year of record funding for our 17 national laboratories, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

On Thursday, May 24, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that will fund our 17 national laboratories, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), modernize our nuclear weapons facilities at Y-12 National Security Complex, and accelerate cleanup at the East Tennessee Technology Park, ORNL, and the Y-12 National Security Complex.

The bill also provides $6.927 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — record funding in a regular appropriations bill — to maintain and rebuild our nation’s waterways, including up to $99.5 million to fully fund construction at Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga for the fifth consecutive year. The bill is consistent with the spending limits included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 approved by Congress, and signed by President Trump, in February. The legislation is now ready to be considered by the full Senate.

Over the last three years, Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — has increased funding for science, research and innovation, and this bill continues that tradition. I would tell the president and the Office of Management and Budget that science, research and innovation is what made America first, and I recommend that the president should add science, research and innovation to his “America First” agenda.

The Appropriations Committee also approved legislation that is good news for 340,000 Tennessee farmers, and will also help Tennessee fight the opioid crisis. The Agriculture Appropriations bill funds the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development programs and agricultural research at Tennessee’s universities, and includes $425 million to help provide access to broadband for rural communities. The bill also includes nearly $3 billion for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring the food American’s eat every day is safe and the drugs and medical devices patients need are safe and effective. The bill also strengthens FDA’s authority to identify and intercept illicit drugs, such as fentanyl, at International Mailing Facilities to help fight the opioid crisis. Each year, more than 1,000 Tennesseans die from opioid abuse or overdose – this crisis takes more Tennessee lives than car accidents or gunshots do.

Working to reduce shortages of doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals in rural areas

Last week, the Senate health committee I chair held a bipartisan hearing to learn about the growing shortage of health care professionals — which includes doctors, nurses, paramedics, and x-ray technicians — in rural areas and better understand where health care professionals are choosing to work so we can start addressing shortages across the country. As our population grows older, the gap between the number of us who need health care and the number who are there to provide health care gets bigger and bigger.

According to the National Rural Health Association, there are only 39 primary care doctors for every 100,000 people living in rural areas, but there are 53 primary care doctors for every 100,000 people in urban areas. I saw an example of how to deal with this problem in Lewis County in Middle Tennessee earlier this year. There is a community health center there with only one doctor, but all 12,000 residents of that county can come in every day and have 90 percent of their needs covered. One of the best ways to make sure we have doctors and nurses in rural areas is to train them in the places like Lewis County where we need them.

Tennessee veterans can find health care closer to home under new Senate bill

Last week the Senate passed a bill that is good news for veterans in Tennessee and across the country. It is our responsibility to ensure the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to serve our nation have timely access to more health care choices, and this bill will do just that. Among the many benefits of the legislation, veterans in Tennessee will now have the ability to seek medical care outside the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regardless of if they are able to get into a VA facility within 30 days or live less than 40 miles away from a VA health facility. I applaud Chairman Phil Roe for his leadership in the House of Representatives and his hard work on behalf of our nation’s veterans, and I look forward to President Trump signing this legislation into law.

The opioid crisis is ravaging communities in Tennessee and across the country — and that’s why I’m working on bipartisan legislation to take the next step in helping states like Tennessee fight the opioid crisis.

Tennesseans will now be better prepared to handle threats such as pandemic flu, wildfires

Tennesseans want to know we are better prepared to face public health threats — whether that’s outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola, Zika, or a pandemic flu; natural disasters, such as hurricanes and the wildfires that swept across East Tennessee in 2016; or deliberate attacks with dangerous agents, like anthrax or nuclear weapons. Last week, the Senate health committee I chair passed bipartisan legislation that takes the next step toward ensuring we are able to better protect Tennesseans and all Americans from 21st century threats by strengthening our preparedness and response capabilities. This bill includes provisions championed by Representative Blackburn, and I’m hopeful the full Senate will pass it before many of the programs expire at the end of September.

John Ryder was approved by a Senate committee to serve on the TVA Board of Directors

Last week, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approved John Ryder to serve on the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors. John is a good man and is the right person to help keep TVA on a good path. Over the last few years, TVA’s leadership has made sound decisions to benefit ratepayers in the Tennessee Valley region, and I’m convinced John will make an excellent addition to the TVA Board. I hope his nomination will be quickly considered by the full Senate so he can be confirmed soon.

Urging the Trump administration to work with Congress to modernize NAFTA

I, along with 31 Republican senators, sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer last week urging him not to give Congress an ultimatum on changing the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that could jeopardize American jobs and economic growth. Changes to NAFTA could make it more expensive to build cars in Tennessee, threatening thousands of jobs in 88 counties, and make it harder for Tennessee businesses and farmers to export their products. I will continue to tell the president that NAFTA has been good for Tennessee, and I look forward to working with Ambassador Lighthizer to help make sure that changes to NAFTA do not hurt Tennessee workers or consumers.

I met with Tennessee’s Insurance Commissioner Julie McPeak last week at my office in Washington. I appreciated the update on Tennessee’s health insurance markets, as Tennesseans who purchase insurance in the individual market have seen their premiums skyrocket by more than 176 percent over the last five years.

LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-Tenn.) is the senior U.S. senator, former Tennessee governor and former U.S. Secretary of Education for 1991-1993. He chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and also serves on the Committee on Appropriations, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Committee on Rules and Administration. Alexander may be reached at his Washington, D.C., office at (202) 224-4944 or via his website contact page at