Haslam makes Insure Tennessee case to lawmakers

Governor spoke after a special session was convened Monday to discuss the two-year pilot project.

Lucas L. Johnson II Associated Press | 2/3/2015, 12:11 p.m.
Governor spoke after a special session was convened Monday to discuss the two-year pilot project.
Gov. Haslam said Monday that he would not have proposed the Insure Tennessee proposal if he did not think it was good for the state. (Screenshot)

NASHVILLE – Republican Gov. Bill Haslam told lawmakers Monday evening that his proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans is needed to improve lives and fix a "broken health care system."

Haslam spoke after a special session was convened earlier to discuss the plan, a two-year pilot project called Insure Tennessee. The deal calls on state hospitals to pay the $74 million state share to draw down $2.8 billion dollars in federal Medicaid money to offer coverage to more uninsured Tennesseans.

"Issues surrounding health care are complex, and the politics can seem difficult, but there are few challenges facing our state or our country today as great as those presented by our broken health care system," Haslam said in a joint address to the House and Senate. "I just don't believe that we can sit back and do nothing."

But many fellow Republicans in the Legislature are dubious about Haslam's plan because it relies on funds available under President Barack Obama's health care law.

"This is absolutely Obamacare," Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, said before the speech. "We're increasing entitlements using money appropriated by the Medicaid expansion provisions of Obamacare to do what we're talking about today"

During his speech, Haslam asked lawmakers to "look past the easy political argument" of the proposal being connected to Obama, and reassured them the state has the right to end the program.

"Many of you are concerned about what might happen if the federal government changes the rules, or if the hospitals change their mind about the assessment fee, or if after two years we decide that this is not right for Tennessee," said Haslam, who spent weeks recently touring the state to promote his plan to lawmakers. "In any of those events, we have the clear authority to end the program."

While some lawmakers said Haslam did a good job distancing his plan from the federal health care law, others said he wasn't convincing enough.

"It's going to take a lot more persuasion from the governor to get the 50 votes that he's got to have in the House of Representatives," said House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin. "It's doable, but it's going to be very difficult for him and his staff to do."

The Insure Tennessee proposal would be available to people whose earnings are below 138 percent of the federal poverty level — which works out to $16,100 for an individual or about $33,000 for a family of four. Haslam has said the plan would offer "market-based" solutions like vouchers to buy private insurance, co-pays and health savings accounts.

In his speech, Haslam made a case for his plan by referring to actual individuals he'd met with health care challenges, like a Jackson, Tenn., carpenter who suffered from hypertension and eventually had a stroke because he didn't get proper health care.

"Imagine it's your loved one that is in need of health care and has no way to pay for it now," Haslam said. "He was a hard working Tennessean that wasn't able to get the care he needed on the front end and that has real consequences for him and his family."

Indiana last month became the 28th state to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama's health care law, and the 10th initiated by a Republican governor.

As for Tennessee's plan, supporters and opponents of it have released lists of prominent Republicans' views on the matter.

A coalition supporting the plan last week released a list of 104 prominent Republicans around the state, including current and former county party chairs. Durham and state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, on Monday countered with a list of 20 county Republican chairs, including two who had previously been listed as supporters.