By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam insists he’s not giving up on his Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income people in the state, though he says he doesn’t have any specific plans for resurrecting the measure this year.
Haslam told editors and publishers attending a Tennessee Press Association luncheon in Nashville on Thursday that he was frustrated by the measure’s defeat, surprised by lawmakers’ level of mistrust of the federal government and embarrassed by the number of times he called U.S. Health and Human Resources Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell to hammer out the failed deal.
Despite broad support from hospitals, doctors, chambers of commerce and a popular governor coming off a landslide re-election win, Haslam said proponents failed to “move the needle” among fellow Republican lawmakers opposed to the plan.
“It’s actually extraordinary what happened,” Haslam said. “If you had told a political science class 10 years ago, ‘Here’s the situation,’ they’d tell you you’d get that done easy.”
A Senate committee voted 7-4 to kill the measure on the third day of a special legislative session on Wednesday. The two-year pilot program would have had state hospitals pay the $74 million state share to drawn down $2.8 billion in Medicaid money available under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Several lawmakers including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said they were uncomfortable authorizing the governor to proceed without a written contract with the federal government.
“We could not in good conscience put our stamp of approval on a mere verbal agreement with the Obama administration,” Ramsey said after the governor’s plan was defeated.
Haslam is unlikely to proceed with signing a written agreement with HHS unless he received guarantees from enough lawmakers that they’d change their positions.
“If I really believed that, we would do that,” Haslam said. “But people would have to say, ‘With a signed agreement I’m going to change my mind.'”
Several lawmakers during the special session raised concerns that the federal government would renege on its promises, cancel written assurances that the state could drop out if costs were higher than expected or fail to pay its share of Medicaid funding.
“The whole sense of distrust of the federal government — while I could have told you that our Legislature felt that way — was so much bigger than I thought,” Haslam said.
The governor suggested that some of those worries were misplaced.
“People are worried about, will they come through,” he said. “The United States of America has never missed a Medicaid payment, period.”
So what’s next? The governor is unsure.
“I do want to stress the problem has not gone away and so we will not quit trying to work on that,” he said.