Tennessee health activists turn up heat on House speaker

Sheila Burke, The Associated Press | 3/22/2016, 1:12 p.m.
Coalition goes statewide with campaign for a full House vote on measure to expand Medicaid benefits to Tennesseans who lack ...
About 20 billboards went live across the state Monday asking Harwell to help pass Insure Tennessee, the governor's Medicaid expansion plan. (Screenshot WKRN)

NASHVILLE – Activists who want the state Legislature to expand Medicaid benefits to Tennesseans who lack health coverage are turning up the heat on House Speaker Beth Harwell.

About 20 billboards went live across the state Monday asking Harwell to help pass Insure Tennessee, the governor's Medicaid expansion plan. The proposal would cover about 280,000 Tennesseans who lack insurance.

Activists had already paid for three billboards in Nashville. But a coalition of more than 70 business and community leaders decided to take the campaign statewide because they want Harwell, R-Nashville, to bring a full vote to the House floor. Martha Ingram, a Nashville philanthropist and one of the state's wealthiest citizens, is among the Insure Tennessee supporters making a push to expand health care coverage across the state.

Ingram, in a conference call to reporters Monday, said she got involved because she was disappointed in lawmakers for refusing to pass Insure Tennessee and said she thought they were not fulfilling their responsibilities to citizens.

"I honestly don't really know how they sleep at night," Ingram said.

The new billboards are in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Jackson, Clarksville, Cookeville, Murfreesboro, Tullahoma, Elizabethton, Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport.

"I always welcome hearing the opinions from people across this state on an issue that is important to them," Harwell said in an emailed statement. "However, Governor Haslam decided earlier this year not to pursue the implementation of Insure Tennessee. As Speaker, I cannot unilaterally bring it to a vote. All bills go through the committee process, and this has failed to receive the support needed to advance.

"At the end of session last year, I began to have discussions with members of the House and the administration on creative elements that could garner widespread support. These elements reflect not only a desire to assist, but also to enhance, the effectiveness of our current TennCare program. I'm confident we will reach a solution and have an announcement by mid-April."

Republican lawmakers have rejected Haslam's Medicaid expansion plan amid fears that it was too closely linked to President Barack Obama's signature health care law. The Tennessee Hospital Association has been pushing for Insure Tennessee, saying that small hospitals might be forced to shut down without federal money that would come with Medicaid expansion.

Activists believe that Harwell has the power to help get the bill passed despite resistance in the General Assembly. And they think the time to do it is now.

"It can be done, and it must be done," said Mary Falls, a member of the group from Nashville. "Our state's hospitals and our health care infrastructure, along with the health of more than 280,000 Tennesseans, depends on it."