By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
JACKSON, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday kicked off a statewide tour to make the hard sell for his proposal to extend health coverage to more than 200,000 low-income Tennesseans.
Haslam opened the tour at Jackson-Madison County Memorial Hospital, where he sought to explain his Insure Tennessee proposal and assuage the concerns of fellow Republicans wary of approving the program in a special legislative session next month because it would draw on federal money available under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“This is not Obamacare,” Haslam told reporters after the event. “This is a different program that puts incentives in there for healthy behavior both on the user side and on the medical care provider side.
“And it won’t cost Tennessee taxpayers another dime,” he said.
Haslam headed to Memphis after the Jackson stop, and said he would make up to eight more stops around the state before the special session begins on Feb. 2.
“We’re not here to twist anyone’s arms — yet — for a vote,” Haslam said.
During the governor’s visit to Christ Community Health Services in Frayser, a community in north Memphis, state Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris praised the governor for “bucking” Republican lawmakers in coming up with the plan.
Republican Rep. Mark White took issue with Harris’ statement, saying the governor was not acting against the wishes of his own party.
“This is a critical problem,” White said of the health care issue. “We’re trying to find an answer.”
Hospitals have agreed to cover any extra costs to the state that Haslam’s Medicaid proposal would incur, and the governor said he will obtain guarantees from the federal government that the state can drop out of the program at any time.
Haslam received a positive response among several lawmakers who attended the meetings, including Rep. Jimmy Eldridge and newly elected Sen. Ed Jackson, both of Jackson, and Rep. Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads.
“There’s still a lot of gray areas I’d like to have answered,” Jackson said. “But it looks promising.”
Eldridge cited the importance of the survival of rural hospitals in supporting the governor’s plan, and said he was undeterred by outside groups threatening political ramifications for those who vote for it.
“I don’t worry about re-election. I worry about doing the right thing,” Eldridge said. “If I do the right thing, I let the voters decide whether to send me back to Nashville. There is life after politics.”
The governor said he has worked with hospitals to establish a new payment plan that would control health care costs by offering lump-sum reimbursements for complete medical treatment rather than for individual procedures.
“Covering more people in some ways is the easy piece,” Haslam said. “Controlling the costs is hard because it’s one-sixth of the national economy.
“To control costs means getting into some people’s pocket books,” he said. “Then all of a sudden everything gets a lot harder.”
Haslam’s tour coincides with public relations campaigns being ramped up by both supporters and opponents of the plan. Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and a vocal opponent of the Medicaid plan, has called a hearing of his committee next week to address legal questions about Haslam’s proposal.
The governor said he welcomes debate about the plan and that his administration is ready to participate in Kelsey’s hearings.
“We obviously have full confidence in the legal issues surrounding this or we wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “If you have a committee, you can call a hearing and we’ll show up and we’ll give you the very best answers that we have.”
But the governor said he hoped independent groups wouldn’t feed misinformation into the debate.
“I understand some people don’t agree with us, but I don’t think it’s a good thing for Tennessee when people come in with information that’s just wrong and try to subvert the argument,” he said.