Senate committee kills Insure Tennessee (again)

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans failed again Tuesday, voted down by a key Senate committee a month after it was defeated in a special legislative session.

The Senate Commerce Committee voted 6-2 against the measure on Tuesday. One committee member abstained from voting.

Following the special session, the proposal had been resurrected on a 6-2 vote in the Senate Health Committee.

However, prospects for passage this last time were slim, even though Haslam tried to make his case with individual committee members.

Before Tuesday’s vote, sponsors of the legislation tried to assure committee members their concerns about the proposal had been addressed.

Under the two-year pilot program, hospitals would cover the $74 million state share to draw down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid funds. Many opponents of the measure are unwilling to vote for a program tied to President Barack Obama’s health care law.

The revived proposal incorporated three new elements to address concerns raised by lawmakers during the special session. They included adding a “lockout provision” for enrollees who repeatedly fail to pay premiums; assurances from Haslam not to proceed if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against federal health insurance marketplaces; and requirements for the federal government to guarantee that Tennessee can drop the program if it ends up being more expensive than planned.

Sponsors told the committee on Tuesday that the governor had received a letter this week from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell saying the state would be able to withdraw from the program.

“Insure Tennessee represents good health care policy for our state,” said Sen. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican and co-sponsor. “I think it is hard to argue against providing more citizens with more opportunities for health insurance coverage.”

Supporters of the proposal traveled from across the state to attend Tuesday’s vote. Many wore purple T-shirts inscribed with “Insure Tennessee Now!” and filled the crowded committee room, some lining its walls. After the vote, some visitors yelled “vote them out” as they left the committee room.

Blanch Thomas organized a group of about 40 people who traveled from Memphis. The health care worker suggested the next step be to oust lawmakers who opposed the governor’s plan.

“I just think that we need to take action in our own hands, and that’s by getting out and voting,” she said.

The House had planned to move forward with its version of the proposal later this week, but that’s unlikely after the Senate committee vote.

Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville, a co-sponsor on the House measure, said “the Senate spoke today.”

“As bad as I hate to see it, I think it’s a dead issue for the year,” he said.

However, Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said supporters of the governor’s plan and those who need it aren’t giving up.

“This issue isn’t going away,” Johnson said. “As the hundreds of people who came here today from across the state showed, Tennesseans are not going to rest until our legislative leaders do what they were elected to do. They need to make Insure Tennessee a reality.”