AUSTIN — Texans applying for federal funds for housing repairs and reimbursements relating to Hurricane Harvey damages face an important deadline.

The Texas General Land Office on Dec. 16 encouraged applicants for the Homeowner Assistance Program and Homeowner Reimbursement Program to submit applications before Dec. 31. 

Some $1.3 billion has been set aside in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery funding. The money is to be used for rehabilitation and reconstruction of thousands of owner-occupied single-family homes in 48 counties that were damaged by Harvey in 2017. 

The General Land Office reported it has approved nearly 2,000 applications for construction, with more than 700 homes currently under construction and nearly 400 homes completed. The Homeowner Reimbursement Program has reimbursed nearly 1,000 applicants for more than $30 million. 

More than 4,000 applications are undergoing eligibility review and more than 4,100 applications remain in the draft stage under the Homeowner Assistance Program. The Homeowner Reimbursement program has more than 7,500 applications in draft status and an estimated 2,300 undergoing eligibility review.

Surprise billing: Waiver

The Texas Department of Insurance last week adopted a rule outlining a narrow exception to the state’s new surprise billing protections relating to health care services provided on or after Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 1264, passed during the 2019 regular session of the Texas Legislature, is intended to protect consumers with state-regulated health plans — about 16% of Texans — from surprise bills in emergencies and in cases where the consumer had no choice of providers. The legislation carves out a narrow exception when a consumer chooses an out-of-network doctor or provider at an in-network facility.

The Texas Department of Insurance, which has rule-making authority, said the rule was adopted on an emergency basis, and the next step is for the rule to go through the normal rule-making process, allowing time to accept and consider public comments.

AG addresses report

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Dec. 18 released a statement in response to the United Kingdom’s assessment of tech giant Google’s market power.

The assessment relates to the Online Platforms and Digital Advertising Market Study Interim Report conducted by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Paxton said, “The CMA, like many other competition authorities around the world, including the Texas-led, multi-state bipartisan coalition of 51 attorneys general, is examining the dominance and conduct of tech giant Google in online markets and I applaud those efforts.” 

Paxton said the report reflects “a growing concern over Google’s business practices, and we intend to closely follow the facts we discover in our own investigation and proceed as necessary if Google has harmed competition, undermined consumer choice, stifled innovation, or violated users’ privacy and trust.”

In September, Paxton and other state attorneys general launched a bipartisan investigation of Google’s business practices in accordance with state and federal antitrust laws. The coalition announced plans to investigate Google’s overarching control of online advertising markets and search traffic that may have led to anticompetitive behavior that harms consumers. The investigation is ongoing, Paxton said.

In a Dec. 18 Reuters news story, spokespeople for Google and Facebook said after the release of the Digital Advertising Market Study Interim Report that moving forward, their companies would continue to consult and work with the UK’s CMA.

Lung injuries 

increase

In its weekly health update, the Texas Department of State Health Services on Dec. 17 reported 223 known cases of severe lung disease in Texas residents who report vaping before developing symptoms. One patient has died in the state. 

Patients range in age from 13 to 75 years old with a median age of 22 years. About one-quarter of the people affected in Texas are minors. Three-quarters are male, and nine in 10 report vaping THC or marijuana, possibly in conjunction with other substances. Almost all were hospitalized, with many requiring intensive care.

Nationally, 2,409 cases have been reported. The Department of State Health Services is working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other states to gather evidence about what the cases have in common and determine a cause.

“Until we know more about the cause, people should consider not using e-cigarettes. If you do vape and experience symptoms like those reported, seek medical care promptly,” the Department of State Health Services said in its Dec. 17 news release.

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