Building a Healthier Memphis

Dear Friend,

This week, I spoke out against the Federal Drug Czar’s outdated and racially-charged policies when it comes to marijuana and I also spoke out against Governor Haslam’s plan to raid the HOPE Scholarship surplus fund. In addition, I attended a meeting with President Obama and was selected to be the lead Democrat on the influential House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. Keep reading to learn more.

Building a Healthier Memphis
Fighting for a Sane Marijuana Policy
Fully Funding the HOPE Scholarships
Promoting Memphis Priorities to President Obama and His Administration
Protecting the Constitution and Civil Rights
Ensuring Memphians Get the Tax Returns They Deserve
Helping Memphians Get Covered
Saving Memphis Car-Owners Money
United States Naval Academy Summer Programs
Helping Veterans Become Homeowners
2014 U.S. Capitol Historical Society Calendars Are Available
Grant Announcements

Building a Healthier Memphis

Among the many benefits of the Affordable Care Act—also known as Obamacare—is free preventive care for services like mammograms that can detect breast cancer. A New York Times story even noted that Memphis is “the deadliest major American city for African-American women with breast cancer.”

This racial disparity in breast cancer outcomes is deplorable, but we can take steps to reduce it. A primary reason for the high mortality rate is late diagnosis, when the disease is harder to treat and has much lower survival rates. Next Thursday morning at Church Health Center Wellness, I will launch my “Building a Healthier Memphis” wellness event series by hosting an expert panel discussion and education session about the source of this disparity and what we can do to address it and improve outcomes for victims of breast cancer in our city. More details about the event, which begins at 10am, are available here. If you plan on attending, please RSVP by calling my Memphis office at (901) 544-4131.

I hope you will attend Thursday’s panel and education session to learn how you can take advantage of breast cancer screenings with no co-pays under the Affordable Care Act, and I encourage you to share this information with your female family members. It could help save lives in our city and around the country. And don’t forget that the open season deadline to enroll in health coverage for this year at HealthCare.gov is March 31st.

Fighting for a Sane Marijuana Policy

Nobody dies from marijuana, but people die from heroin overdoses—including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—every day. Every second we spend trying to enforce marijuana possession laws is a moment that we’re not enforcing laws meant to protect Americans from the ravages of drugs like heroin and meth. That’s where our priority should be. When we put marijuana on the same level as LSD, crack, heroin, meth, and cocaine—as the federal government has—it only encourages young people not to listen to us. They know that marijuana isn’t as dangerous as harder drugs.

Young people shouldn’t be smoking marijuana, but they are. They shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol either, but they are. We shouldn’t lock them up for any of that. Any time an American goes to jail and has their liberty taken away from them for marijuana possession, that is an injustice and a travesty. It is ludicrous, absurd, and crazy to classify marijuana on the same level as more dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. There is a cultural lag in this country, and Congress and this Administration must fix it.

That’s why when Michael Botticelli, Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), came before a House committee this week I took him and his office to task for their outdated policies. I am troubled that not only is the ONDCP the only federal office required by law to oppose rescheduling marijuana even if it is proven to have medical benefits, but that it is also prohibited from studying if that could even be true. The ONDCP’s job should be to develop and recommend sane drug control policies, not be handcuffed or muzzled from telling the American people the truth. Our War on Drugs has failed, and the ONDCP should be able to recognize reality. I joined Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC’s The Last Word on Wednesday night to discuss just how backwards our federal marijuana policies are. You can watch our discussion here.

Fully Funding the HOPE Scholarships

Over the last 10 years, the HOPE Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years as a State Senator to create has been an unparalleled success that has provided $2.9 billion to Tennessee’s best and brightest. And while this funding has been critical to helping students attend college and complete 4-year degrees, the HOPE Scholarship has never fully funded college scholarships, as intended, because state lawmakers have not allowed it to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of higher education.

Today’s HOPE Scholarships pay a smaller portion of college costs than it did 10 years ago and, if Governor Haslam’s newly-announced plan to slash the first two years of HOPE Scholarships by 25% is implemented, it will provide even smaller scholarships for freshmen and sophomores. The first two years of college are crucial for students finding their way. With scholarships paying a smaller portion of tuition, families will have to pay more and students may need to work more hours while studying, making academic success and retention of the HOPE Scholarship more difficult. Today’s college students are graduating with more student loan debt than ever before, crippling their chances of economic success.

To ensure that HOPE Scholarships continue to help Tennessee’s students afford college and succeed, the program must keep pace with the rising cost of higher education. But the Governor’s newly-announced "Promise" actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning 4-year degree programs. I am extremely concerned and remain cautious about any plan that would make it harder for our state’s proven young people to begin attending the best universities in Tennessee, or any plan that places additional financial burden on schools like the University of Memphis which are already struggling to keep costs down and provide high-quality educations.

Rather than raiding the scholarship fund’s surplus to create a new government program, those funds should be used for what the people of Tennessee voted for: encouraging Tennessee high school students to work hard and earn a scholarship which will then keep our best and brightest students in Tennessee and providing Tennessee with a highly educated and desirable workforce. The surplus funds would be better used, as I personally expressed last year to Governor Haslam, by raising the income cap on or raising the amount of Aspire Awards that give middle- and low-income students who work hard extra help to give them a fair shot at success.

Promoting Memphis Priorities to President Obama and His Administration

On Tuesday night, I visited the White House to attend a meeting with President Obama and had a chance to speak with him about justice issues. I was also able to speak with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Counsel to the President John Podesta about projects that will help Memphis.

I also spoke with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan over the phone on Monday. Once again I urged him, as I have for other projects, to approve the Choice Neighborhood implementation grant for Foote Homes on Vance Avenue. It will be good for the citizens of that neighborhood and it may be necessary for Memphis to be considered for a Promise Zone designation. Mayor Wharton and I have worked closely on both of these projects.

Protecting the Constitution and Civil Rights

On Wednesday, I was selected by my colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee to be the lead Democrat on the Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee. Fighting to protect our civil rights has always been my central focus throughout my legal and political careers. I am extremely proud of and grateful for this opportunity to succeed Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York as the top Democrat on this committee charged with safeguarding the Constitution and protecting our civil liberties.

I take this appointment with great humility and responsibility, and I look forward to using it to continue the fight for the issues that the people of Memphis sent me here for. Whether safeguarding the voting rights that we hold sacred and a woman’s right to choose, curtailing government surveillance overreach, or working to bring justice to the victims of outdated and racially-biased mandatory minimum sentences, I am committed to doing all that I can to protect the Constitution and the civil rights of all Americans.

One of the first things I am doing with this new post is helping lead the effort to protect and strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Just yesterday morning, I met with Representatives Steny Hoyer, John Conyers, Jim Clyburn, and Bobby Scott as well as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights President Wade Henderson. We are searching for Republican cosponsors and I hope to help pass a bill that protects everyone’s right to vote soon.

Ensuring Memphians Get the Tax Returns They Deserve

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is too important for people to overlook, and everyone who is eligible should claim it when filing their taxes. But historically, eligible taxpayers in Memphis and Shelby County have not taken full advantage of the program—last year alone, as much as $70 million in potential tax credits were left on the table by area taxpayers.

Memphians shouldn’t pay more than they owe, and they should receive every penny they deserve in refunds. That’s why I was at the grand opening of one of 15 new Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites that just opened throughout Shelby County to provide guidance and advice free of charge to ensure that eligible Shelby County citizens take advantage of programs like the EITC and get the tax refund they are entitled to. Click here to find a VITA site near you to help ensure you get every penny you are owed.

Helping Memphians Get Covered

All Memphians should have quality health insurance and the President’s landmark Affordable Care Act is making affordable, higher-quality coverage available to people who have not had access to it in the past. Luckily, many who have been unable to afford quality coverage in the past are now eligible to enroll in Tennessee’s Health Insurance Marketplace. Please don’t forget that the open season deadline to enroll in health coverage for this year at HealthCare.gov is March 31st. And if you do not have health insurance coverage, you may also be eligible to save money on your health care premiums in the Marketplace.

If you are on Medicare or your employer is offering qualified health insurance that you are enrolled in, you’re already covered and won’t need to enter the Marketplace for your health coverage. If you aren’t sure whether or not you should use the Marketplace to get insurance, call the Marketplace Hotline at 1 (800) 318-2596, visit www.HealthCare.gov, or call Tennessee’s navigator, Seedco, at (901) 528-8341. You can also call my office or the Marketplace Hotline to find out if TennCare (Tennessee’s Medicaid program) is a coverage option for you. If you are one of the millions of Americans who need health insurance, you can sign up for coverage for 2014 until the open enrollment period closes on March 31st, 2014. Visit www.healthcare.gov today to look at your options.

The Affordable Care Act is already working for families across the Ninth District. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 147,000 individuals in the district now have health insurance that covers preventive services without co-pays, $3.1 million in insurance premiums have been returned to consumers, and more than 5,000 seniors on Medicare paid a total of $5.9 million less for their prescription medications as we continue to close the ‘donut hole.’ Also, health insurance companies can no longer discriminate against patients with pre-existing conditions and young adults up to age 26 can now stay on their parents’ insurance plan.

Many of the Marketplace website issues that have been in the news have been resolved. However, the Marketplace website is only one tool that you can use to sign up for coverage. If you are having trouble accessing the website, please do not hesitate to call the Marketplace Hotline at 1 (800) 318-2596 or visit the Affordable Care Act Navigators at Seedco's Mid-South office at 22 North Front Street (Suite 900) for in-person help. Seedco can also be reached by phone at (901) 528-8341, and if you have any other questions, you should feel free to call my office at (901) 544-4131.

Saving Memphis Car-Owners Money

On Sunday, the Commercial Appeal reported that the shutdown of Memphis’ vehicle inspection program won’t add enough air pollution to violate federal smog rules. While I believe we all have a part to play in protecting our air, this is good news.

I have heard from constituents about—and experienced for myself—the frustration of being hit with hundreds of dollars in car repair bills that will have limited, if any, emissions reductions benefits. Even though my car registered zero emissions, I was unable to pass the inspection because my “check engine” light was on—and had to pay hundreds in repairs just to fix that so that I could pass the inspection. While I am lucky to have been able to afford the repairs, Memphians shouldn’t have to shoulder an additional burden because of a faulty testing system that discriminates against those who often don’t have the means to afford repairs that have little or no effect on their vehicle’s emissions.

United States Naval Academy Summer Programs

Each year, the United States Naval Academy invites more than 3,000 students to Annapolis, Maryland, to participate in its summer programs. The Academy’s summer STEM program, which is now accepting applications here, gives rising 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th graders the opportunity to learn from some of the best college professors in the country and work in world-class lab facilities. The Academy’s Summer Seminars gives rising 12th graders the opportunity to find out if they have what it takes to be midshipmen by allowing them to experience the rigorous academics, physical challenges, and student life at the Naval Academy. More information about the Summer Seminar and how to apply is available here.

Helping Veterans Become Homeowners

Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helped a record number of veterans obtain mortgage loans and become homeowners. In guaranteeing nearly 630,000 home loans, the VA’s Loan Guarantee program helped more veterans become homeowners or move to a new home than at any point in its 70-year history. Not only is this great news for veterans, but it also is another sign that our housing market is rebounding—and that is good news for everyone. The VA Loan Guarantee program has some of the lowest foreclosure rates around and, along with offering low interest rates, their loans do not require a down payment from first-time buyers. If you are a veteran looking to purchase a home, you can learn more about the program here.

2014 U.S. Capitol Historical Society Calendars Are Available

My office currently has a limited number of 2014 U.S. Capitol Historical Society calendars available. If you would like to receive a calendar, please complete this short form on my website. Due to the rules of the House of Representatives, I am only able to mail calendars to residents of Tennessee’s Ninth District. Please feel free to share this email with other citizens of the Ninth District who may be interested in receiving one but who do not receive my eNewsletter.

Grant Announcements

I regularly release a list of grant announcements from federal agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, and others. These federal funding opportunities are available to faith-based and neighborhood associations, nonprofits and other community organizations in the 9th District. The announcements are updated regularly on my website.

As always, I remain. 
Most sincerely,


Steve Cohen
Member of Congress