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Senator Wayne D. Fontana

Affordable Care Act Ruling

ACALast year, a lawsuit was initiated by Texas’ Attorney General alongside 19 states with Republican governors or legislatures that argued that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was unconstitutional. In December, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor agreed that the constitutionality of the law’s individual mandate dissolved when Congress removed the tax penalty for the uninsured.  For this reason, Senate Democrats have introduced two bills that will codify 10 essential health benefits of the ACA into state law so that health insurers are forbidden from using a person’s pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny healthcare coverage. 

Under the Affordable Care Act, Americans were required to purchase health insurance or face a government penalty.  In 2012, one of the challenges against the ACA was that the individual mandate was an overreach of Congress’s commerce clause power.  Although the United States Supreme Court rejected this claim, the Supreme Court upheld key provisions of the ACA and found the mandate to be constitutional as a tax, even though it was not labeled as a tax under the ACA, rather a penalty.   

Fast forward to 2017, one of the many provisions of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was that it eliminated the individual health insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act which means citizens are no longer taxed for failing to obtain health insurance.  For this reason, the lawsuit that took place in Texas claimed that when Congress repealed the tax penalty aspect of the ACA in 2017, the individual mandate could no longer be characterized as a tax. Therefore, the Affordable Care Act was no longer constitutional.  Judge O’Connor agreed with this rationale saying it “can no longer be fairly read as an exercise of Congress’s tax power.”

Although Pennsylvania was not a part of this lawsuit, if this decision were to be held by the higher court it could have ramifications for the commonwealth.  Currently there are over 1.1 million people in Pennsylvania who have health insurance coverage that is only available to them because of the Affordable Care Act.  If it is completely undone, it could also affect protections that have been put into place for people covered by private health plans, including for residents with pre-existing conditions. 

Pennsylvania has the legal authority to enforce many of the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Senate Bills 50 and 51 have been introduced by the Senate Democratic Caucus to guard these major tenets. Specifically, SB 50 would protect health care rights for Pennsylvanians with preexisting conditions while SB 51 guarantees the ten essential health benefits (EHB) covered by the ACA would be mandatory under state law. These include ambulatory patient services; emergency services; hospitalization; maternity and newborn care; mental health and substance abuse use disorder services; prescription drugs; rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices including behavioral health treatment; laboratory services; preventative and wellness services and chronic disease management; and pediatric services which include oral and vision care. 

Only six states have more people enrolled in ACA health plans compared to Pennsylvania.  Therefore, it is imperative that the General Assembly continues to fight for policies that improve access and affordability to health care even if the rest of the United States strips these services from their constituency.  Senate Bills 50 and 51 will provide these protections for those who need it most should the Republicans continue their assault on health care at the federal level. 

SNAP Update

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) announced last week that February benefits for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients were to be dispersed on January 18, 2019 and would be available for use by January 19, 2019. The early payment follows an announcement from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notifying states that benefits will be fully funded for the month of February, but benefits must be paid early.

On January 8, 2019, DHS received notice from the USDA that February SNAP benefits will be fully funded, but that these benefits needed to be issued by January 20. DHS worked closely with its vendors and will be able to issue the February benefits to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards on January 18. This early payment is SNAP recipients’ February benefit and will be the only benefit payment SNAP recipients will receive for the month of February. Recipients will not receive a payment on their regularly scheduled February payment date. DHS is sending a letter and/or email to SNAP recipients to notify them of this change.

Payments beyond February will be determined based on the availability of USDA funds. DHS is awaiting information from the USDA on plans for March benefits should the partial federal government shutdown continue.

DHS will continue to process applications for all benefits during the shutdown. Recipients should continue to report changes and submit any semi-annual reviews or renewals they receive during this period to not risk an interruption of their benefits in the future.

Clients with questions about their benefits can contact the statewide customer service center at 1-877-395-8930 or the assistance office in Allegheny County at 412-565-2146.

Workforce Development Grants

Last week, Governor Wolf announced more than $2.6 million in Business-Education Partnership (BEP) grants to 22 local workforce development boards (LWDBs) around Pennsylvania, including more than $115,000 to Partner4Work here in Pittsburgh. These federally funded grants connect businesses and schools to provide students with job training for high growth jobs in Pennsylvania.

Partner4Work Partner4Work will utilize this funding in several ways. They will bring together 14 building and construction unions, local colleges, and businesses with career paths related to the construction industry and others to provide students exposure to careers in the building and construction industry. This includes creating a summer internship program that will bring together students with area partners to give hands-on experience with the work that happens in the building and construction industry.  Additionally, a program will be created that will provide students with an introduction to area trades and a first look at what steps are required to apply to and be hired in a trade apprenticeship program.

I am pleased Partner4Work is receiving funding to provide more students with opportunities to learn the skills for jobs that employers need to fill. You can learn more by visiting the state’s Department of Labor & Industry's Workforce Development page or www.partner4work.org.

Did You Know…

Did you know that employers in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area posted 20,409 job openings online in December 2018?

Keystone Historic Preservation Grant Program

Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) is now accepting applications from nonprofit organizations and local governments for the Keystone Historic Preservation Grant Program. Grants support projects that identify, preserve, promote and protect historic and archaeological resources in Pennsylvania for both the benefit of the public and community revitalization. The grants receive funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park, and Conservation Fund. A total of $2.5 million has been set aside for this program, an increase of $1 million over the previous year due to continued popularity of the program.

Two categories of grants, project and construction, are available for historic resources in Pennsylvania listed, or eligible for listing, in the National Register of Historic Places. Applicants may apply for only one type of grant.

Project grants are available for planning and development initiatives that enhance historic preservation in communities. Project grant applications may include municipal planning initiatives focusing on historic resources or may be used to meet building, or project, specific planning goals. Keystone Historic Preservation Project Grants are available between $5,000 and $25,000 and require a 50/50 cash match.

Construction grants are available for rehabilitation, preservation and restoration activities for historic resources that are publicly accessible and under nonprofit or local government ownership. Keystone Historic Preservation Construction Grants are available between $5,000 and $100,000 and require a 50/50 cash match.

PHMC will host a webinar about the Keystone Grant program guidelines and application process tomorrow at 2 p.m.  To register, please visit http://eepurl.com/dH8-wv.  

Applications are due March 1.  Grants will be awarded through a competitive selection process and are contingent on the availability of funds. Please note that all PHMC grant applications are now submitted on the Commonwealth’s Single Application for Assistance system at www.esa.dced.state.pa.us. For grant program guidelines and program fact sheet, visit PHMC online at www.phmc.pa.gov and click on “Grants and Funding” under the PRESERVATION tab on the top Navigation Bar.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is the official history agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Casino Gaming Hits All-time High in 2018

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board announced recently that revenue generated by slot machines and table games during the 2018 calendar year was the highest annual total to date.  Total revenue of $3,248,681,377 in 2018 topped the previous year total of $3,226,910,816.  The record 2018 figure comes even with a slight 1.3 percent dip in table games revenue over 2017. However, slot machine revenue fueled the overall growth by increasing by more than $32 million dollars this past year over 2017 revenue figures.

The Gaming Control Board also reported that tax revenue in 2018 from the combined play of slot machines and table games was $1,377,254,368.

Additionally, the Gaming Control Board provided its December monthly report for Sports Wagering. The report encompasses the full month returns from Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course and partial month returns from SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia and Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh which both started sports wagering operations on Saturday, December 14, 2018.

The monthly report, which will include additional facilities as they launch sportsbooks, provides a breakdown of the total handle collected, gross revenue, and taxes paid to the Commonwealth.

Casino

Handle

Revenue

Tax

Rivers Casino*

$5,581,553

$1,066,157

$383,816

SugarHouse Casino*

$5,539,806

$641,167

$230,820

Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course

$5,051,730

$299,222

$107,720

Statewide Total

$16,173,090

$2,006,546

$722,356

The state’s gaming industry employs about 18,000 people.  For more information on gaming in Pennsylvania and to read reports from the Gaming Control Board, please visit them online at www.gamingcontrolboard.pa.gov.

Food Bank Resources

Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank first opened its doors in 1980 during a time when the region’s steel mills were closing, and more and more people became unemployed. The Food Bank was there to not only provide food assistance, but to help people get back on their feet. Over the past 35 years, as the world of food assistance has evolved, the Food Bank has moved beyond emergency food assistance. Today, they work through a network of nearly 400 partner agencies (including smaller regional and rural food banks, food pantries, homeless shelters and senior centers) and seven Partner Distribution Organizations (PDOs) that support additional agencies throughout their 11-county service area.

Today, the Food Bank and its partners have dozens and dozens of locations within the 42nd Senatorial District and can assist individuals and families in need. To view a map that shows locations within the district and a listing of agencies, please click here.

Prime Stage Theatre Free Public Event to Kick Off NEA Big Read

Prime StageThe public is welcome to join Prime Stage Theatre for an evening of Latin American music by Guaracha, dancing, food, and drink this Friday, January 25, 2019 beginning at 5:00 p.m. at Casa Brasil, located at 5904 Bryant Street in Highland Park.

The event, which kicks off a season of community events throughout Pittsburgh culminating in Prime Stage’s March 8-17 theatrical production of In the Time of the Butterflies based on the book by Julia Alvarez, is free to the public. There will be a cash bar. Those interested in attending are asked to reserve their spaces at https://primestage.com/events/nea-big-read/.

Prime Stage Butterflies production was selected by NEA as a Big Read event and is cast with Pittsburgh-based, Hispanic-American actors. The play, which has been selected by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as one of its national Big Read events for 2019, tells the true story of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s bloody reign in the Dominican Republic and the four young adult Mirabal sisters, led by Minerva Mirabal and code named "the Butterflies," who sparked a revolution to overthrow his regime. The play, which will run at the New Hazlett Theater Center for the Performing Arts on the Northside, has been cast with professional Hispanic-American actors from the Pittsburgh area. The director is Ricardo Vila-Roger. More information about the production and cast can be found at www.primestage.com.

Fontana Fact

As part National Mentoring Month it is important to note that youth who meet regularly with their mentors are 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school. 

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana

Brookline District
1039 Brookline Boulevard
Suite 2
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Phone: 412-344-2551
Weekdays – 9 am – 5 pm
Harrisburg
543 Main Capitol | Box 203042
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Phone: 717-787-5300
Fax: 717-772-5484
Weekdays – 8:30 am – 5 pm
Kennedy Township
Kenmawr Plaza
524 Pine Hollow Road
Kennedy Twp, PA 15136
Phone: 412-331-1208
Weekdays – 10 am – 4 pm
Beechview Satellite
1660 Broadway Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216
10 a.m. – 3 p.m. – First Tuesday of each month or by appointment