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Capital Highlights: Emergency SNAP benefits extended again

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is again extending emergency food benefits this month, with more than $307 million in emergency allocations expected to help more than 1.5 million Texas households.

“As Texans ring in the new year, this additional support will help families start 2022 with food on the table for themselves and their children,” said Wayne Salter, HHSC deputy executive commissioner.

The agency received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the maximum allowable amount of benefits provided through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That means recipients will receive at least $95 in emergency SNAP allotments by Jan. 31, in addition to their regular allotment.

Texans in need can apply for benefits at YourTexasBenefits.com.

Former Houston NFL player pleads guilty to fraud

A former linebacker for the Houston Texans has pleaded guilty to taking part in a scheme to defraud a player health care reimbursement fund by submitting false claims totaling more than $129,000.

Shantee Orr is one of eight former NFL players accused in a case led by Texas Department of Insurance investigators working with prosecutors from the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

“Those claims were for rehab therapies and medical treatments that were never actually provided,”  TDI prosecutor Rick Watson said. “The players and the trainer would each get a cut of the money that was reimbursed by the fund.”

Orr pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony, paid restitution and will serve five years probation.

Insurance companies line up to sue ERCOT

As the one-year anniversary of the winter storm that left millions without power approaches, more than 100 insurance companies are suing the state’s main power grid operator and a number of electricity providers, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Defendants are the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, as well as companies that supply power through ERCOT. The power failure caused more than $10 billion in property damage, primarily to residences.

The suit claims ERCOT “failed to adequately prepare for the 2020-2021 winter season, and in fact, planned to fail,” noting that the agency had projected the state would end up in the highest state of emergency in the event of an extreme weather event, the Statesman reported.

ERCOT controls nearly all the state’s power grid.

Abbott sues feds over vaccine mandate for Guard

Gov. Greg Abbott last week announced he will sue the federal government to fight a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for members of the Texas National Guard.

In a letter released last week, Abbott prohibited the Texas National Guard from punishing any service member who does not receive the vaccine. 

“Unless President Biden federalizes the Texas National Guard in accordance with Title 10 of the U.S. Code, he is not your commander-in-chief under our federal or state Constitutions,” Abbott wrote. “And as long as I am your commander-in-chief, I will not tolerate efforts to compel receipt of a COVID19 vaccine.”

The Biden administration maintains the secretary of defense has the legal power to require vaccines. In a mid-November press conference, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said, in part, “When (guardsmen are) called up for their monthly training, they’re still federally funded. So (the secretary) has those authorities. And he believes, and this is a larger point, that vaccinated forces are a more ready force.”

COVID-19 cases more than triple in past week

The omicron variant of COVID-19 has sent cases skyrocketing throughout the state, with a record-high 413,994 new cases reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University in the past week — nearly four times the number reported the previous week.

A total of 717 new deaths were reported, up 70% from the previous week.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 9,803 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Sunday, an increase of 77% from the previous week. Just a month ago, hospitalizations had dropped below 3,000, according to DSHS. The number of new cases this past week is more than ten times the total reported a month ago.

Second round of vaccine funding begins

A second round of funding for the state’s COVID-19 vaccine outreach program has begun. Organizations can apply for grants ranging from $50,000 to $1 million “to engage in vaccine education and outreach with the goal of increasing the number of fully vaccinated Texans against COVID-19.”

Money will be awarded for projects that increase access to COVID-19 vaccines or provide outreach to populations disproportionately affected by the virus.

“As with the first round of funding, DSHS is confident that community-based organizations are perfectly positioned to offer local support for those who seek access for and information about COVID-19 vaccine services,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services.

To learn more about the program, go to: https://health.tamu.edu/vaccinegrant/round-2.html

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.

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