A Texas Senate committee on Friday passed an elections bill that would tighten the state’s voting rules by limiting extended early voting hours, requiring proof of disability to qualify for mail-in voting and prohibiting drive-thru voting. Senate Bill 7, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is one of Gov. Gregg Abbott’s legislative priorities this session.
During testimony Friday, the committee received opposition testimony from AARP, the League of Women Voters, NAACP and other groups. Hughes described his bill as attempting to strike a balance between “maintaining fair and honest elections with the opportunity to exercise one’s right to vote,” according to the Texas Tribune.
Any Texan old enough to legally drive can receive COVID-19 vaccine
More than 10.2 million Texans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Sunday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The pace is expected to quicken now that anyone 16 years and older can receive one of the three versions available in the state. A total of 3.57 million Texans are fully vaccinated — about 12% of the state’s population. DSHS has directed vaccine providers to give priority to people 80 years and older.
To that point, a new outreach partnership between the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and several partners was announced last week by Gov. Gregg Abbott. Among those participating to expand the state’s Save Our Seniors program launched in February are the Texas Employee Retirement System, Texas Teachers Retirement System, AARP and various Medicare health plans.
More than 1 million doses of the vaccine are being shipped to Texas providers this week. Texans can call 2-1-1 or go to https://tinyurl.com/9dvpetm9 for more information about getting the vaccine.
COVID-19 cases in Texas
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas dropped to 27,185 last week, with 741 deaths reported. Both are down just slightly from the previous week, according to the Coronavirus Center at Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations of confirmed COVID-19 cases also showed a slight decrease to 3,308, according to DSHS.
Health care fraud case ends with prison time, $82.9 million restitution
The state’s Department of Workers’ Compensation announced last week that the remaining defendants in a health care fraud bribery scam were sentenced by a federal judge. The case involved surgeons, physicians and hospital administrators at Forest Park Medical Hospital in Dallas. It began in 2016 and involved 14 defendants, who were sentenced to a combined 74-plus years in prison and ordered to pay $82.9 million in restitution. According to a news release from DWC, the department’s fraud unit identified health care providers at Forest Park who billed the state’s workers’ compensation system. The unit turned over the data to the FBI.
“Fraudulent billing within the health care system drives up the costs of health care for everyone,” Debra Knight, DWC deputy commissioner, said. “These significant sentences demonstrate that health care fraud will not be tolerated.”
Border transportation master plan approved by state
The Texas Department of Transportation has approved the Border Transportation Master Plan after years of research and analysis of current and future transportation needs and growth in the border region. Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs, who chaired the Board Trade Advisory Committee, praised the decision. The plan recommended strategies to help U.S. and Mexican officials improve efficiency in the movement of freight, goods and people across the state’s 28 border crossings.
“I look forward to our continued work together on the implementation of the master plan to raise awareness of its importance, improve quality of life for residents of the border region, and secure economic prosperity for all on both sides of the border,” Hughs said.
Forest service acquires acreage through legacy grant
The Texas A&M Forest Service has acquired Fox Hunters Hill, a $1.6 million conservation easement of sustainably managed forest adjacent to the Sabine National Forest in Deep East Texas. The acreage was acquired through the U.S. Forest Legacy Program, which acquired more than 23,000 acres throughout the South to protect forestlands at risk due to urban development or clear cutting.
TFS works with landowners on a “willing buyer/willing seller” basis to obtain the lands and enhance sustainable forest management. “A conservation easement is an interest in land acquired to protect certain conservation values,” explained Gretchen Riley, the Forest Legacy Program Coordinator at Texas A&M Forest Service. “It is a good way to assure important, vulnerable landscapes – and the benefits they provide to Texans – are sustained for the future.”
Fox Hunters Hill borders 213,000 acres of protected lands in the Angelina and Sabine National Forests, including one of the last undeveloped coves of Toledo Bend Reservoir.
Protect yourself from social media identity theft
The Texas Department of Insurance has some advice on taking simple steps to protect social media accounts and thus avoid most scams. Those tips include:
• Don’t post ID cards, including a COVID-19 vaccination card.
• Watch out for online quizzes and surveys that ask for personal information, such as the model of your first car, name of your first pet, or your hometown. Those are often also security login questions.
• Don’t overshare. The more a scammer finds out about you, the easier it is to create a fake account.
• Limit app sharing and close old accounts.
• Protect family members, especially teens, who are the most likely to overshare.
Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span. [email protected]