Harwell to study health care via task force; Democrats howl

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell on Tuesday touted a new initiative to improve health care access in the state, but Democrats quickly derided it as an election-year “charade” to deflect criticism of lawmakers who rejected the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal.

Harwell said she began talking with health policy experts at Vanderbilt University’s medical school to come up with alternatives last year after lawmakers rejected Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Harwell, R-Nashville, has dubbed her initiative the “3-Star Healthy Project,” and said it will tap conservative ideas like encouraging greater responsibility for enrollees; create health savings accounts funded by co-payments; and provide more support for people trying to rejoin the workforce.

She is a creating task force to propose ways to improve access to health care in Tennessee. Harwell said the four Republican House members she has appointed to the task force will work to come up with a specific proposal to make to the federal government as early as June, though the plan could require lawmaker approval next year.

Democrats called the announcement an attempt to give Republicans political cover for rejecting Insure Tennessee.

“This is simply designed to give the false impression that the House Republican leadership is willing to do anything about health care,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville. “It’s clearly not. This is a charade, it’s an effort to delay, and to not simply pass Gov. Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan.

“It’s pathetic,” Stewart said.

State hospitals had pledged to cover the entire $74 million state share of Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, which would have drawn down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid funds over two years.

But Republicans were unconvinced by Haslam administration assurances that the state would have been able to end the program if costs exceeded expectations and many worried about supporting the plan linked to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Harwell’s panel includes Republican representatives Cameron Sexton of Crossville; Matthew Hill of Jonesborough; Steve McManus of Memphis and Roger Kane of Knoxville.

Kane said Harwell’s initiative would seek to put tight controls on enrollment so the state can hold tight reins over costs.

“I was probably one of the most vocal opponents to Insure Tennessee, because there were just no controls implemented, and so it was not fiscally conservative,” he said. “It’s kind-hearted, but not fiscally conservative.”

As Harwell’s press conference drew to a close, protesters who support Insure Tennessee were removed from the room by security officers.

The governor, who attended the event, took to the microphone to defend the lawmakers for taking a “political risk” in moving the health care debate forward.

“I don’t agree with everything that’s been said here — nobody does,” Haslam said. “What you have is some folks who are trying to find a solution, and we should encourage that and applaud that.

“If you want to immediately start turning this into a political argument, then we will be back where we were before,” he said.

Note: Harwell’s news release, along with some in response are below.

News release from House Speaker Beth Harwell
NASHVILLE – Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) announced today that she has appointed a Healthcare Task Force for the purposes of improving access to care, named the 3-Star Healthy Project. Harwell made the announcement on Tuesday, joined by the members of the task force and Governor Bill Haslam.

“A little over a year ago, shortly after Insure Tennessee failed to receive the support needed from the House and Senate to advance, I reached out to experts in health policy at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine,” said Speaker Harwell.

She continued, “These informal, information-seeking discussions led to an even greater interest on the part of members desiring to engage and determine the feasibility of these ideas. In order to put some structure to these concepts we have been discussing, I am announcing today the formation of a task force that will delve into these ideas and formulate a specific proposal. I have asked the task force to complete its work in such time that we could, as a group along with the Governor, meet with CMS in June.”

The Healthcare Task Force members who will work on the 3-Star Healthy Project are as follows:

Representative Cameron Sexton, Chair
Representative Matthew Hill, Vice-Chair
Representative Steve McManus
Representative Roger Kane

News release from U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-05) today issued the following statement after state lawmakers announced a legislative task force to address access to health care:

“Tennesseans waited two years while Governor Haslam negotiated a plan with the federal government. Then the House never even got a chance to vote on it,” Rep. Cooper said. “Now we have to wait at least another year? Cancer patients don’t have that kind of time.”

News release from Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (April 12, 2016) – Following Governor Bill Haslam’s announcement to launch a comprehensive health care task force to study and identify alternatives to insure the working poor in Tennessee, TN Senator Mark Green, MD encourages immediate movement of SJR 88, the TennCare Opt Out pilot program which will enroll low-income Medicaid-eligible participants into a health savings account pilot which incentivizes positive health behaviors and permits patient control and choice.

“Expanding an already failing system through Obamacare is not an option and only a typical response of government bureaucrats. Healthcare innovation must include the approach that places the paying customer, the patient, in control of their personal healthcare choices and care through incentives,” observed Dr. Mark Green referring to the proposed pilot program.

The pilot program will enroll volunteer participants whose income qualifies them for temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) in a newly-created TennCare flexible savings account initiative. Enrollees would receive an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card funded by premiums paid by TennCare to purchase primary care services and medications on an annual basis.

Electronic payment is made immediately to treating physicians which reduces administrative costs and encourages provider participation. Patients in the demonstration program with funds remaining in the health savings account at the year’s end keep those dollars as a reward for their healthier choices that have maintained wellness and their effective budgeting of spending.

“The TennCare Opt Out pilot will align the goals of patients, providers and taxpayers who know the best way to reduce the cost of something is by putting the consumer in charge,” concluded Senator Green, a practicing physician who serves as Vice Chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

SJR 88 is projected to save Tennessee just over $6.8 million as calculated by the Fiscal Review Committee of the General Assembly. The resolution has passed the TN House Committee on Insurance and Banking and awaits review in the House subcommittee on Finance. Green’s bill has passed TN Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce and is on the current calendar for Senate Finance, Ways and Means.

News release from House & Senate Democratic Caucuses:
NASHVILLE – House and Senate Democrats called today’s task force for what it is: yet another delay after four years of no action for the uninsured.

“A charade – politics at its worst,” state Rep. Mike Stewart said. “After four years of no action on Medicaid expansion or Insure Tennessee, four years of preventable deaths and shuttered hospitals, we demand more than just another task force to maybe start to put together a plan.”

“We’re leaving $2 billion on the table and 280,000 Tennesseans without health insurance,” state Rep. Bo Mitchell said. “They need more than a logo and a task force. They need a real plan. They thought they had one already.”

“If legislators went three years without health insurance, we would see more today than just another task force,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro said. “We would have seen action a long time ago. Instead, the leadership is comfortable enough with their own health insurance to set up a task force while 280,000 Tennesseans continue to wait.”

“I am disappointed to see the makeup of the committee today, which looks nothing like the people of Tennessee,” state Rep. Brenda Gilmore said. “It is going to be hard for a committee with no women, with no minorities, and no health professionals, to come up with a plan that will actually serve the needs of this state.”

“The so-called “3-Star” proposal unveiled today deserves a rating of “two thumbs down” from Tennessee families,” state Rep. John Ray Clemmons said. “How embarrassing it must have been for the governor to stand there and watch his signature piece of legislative policy be reduced to nothing before his own eyes. Regardless, we will continue the fight for Insure Tennessee and families who need access to quality, affordable healthcare.”

An email from Andy Spears, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action (a Democrat-leaning group that supports Insure Tennessee) to supporters:


I’m not even kidding. House Speaker Beth Harwell held a press conference today to make what she labeled a “major healthcare announcement.”

After Governor Haslam spent nearly a year and a half developing Insure Tennessee, the legislature has spent two consecutive sessions avoiding votes and serious discussions of the plan that would provide access to healthcare to between 200,000-300,000 Tennesseans.

Today, some expected that Harwell would finally support Governor Haslam’s plan and call on her body’s members to debate the legislation and take a vote.

Instead, she announced she’s forming a task force composed of four lawmakers — each of whom has access to the state’s group health insurance plan — to discuss a possible healthcare solution for Tennesseans.

Yes, that’s it. That’s the “major announcement.” No Senators participated in today’s event. There’s no clear plan yet. And the task force members have yet to talk to the federal government, who must approve any plan before it can go forward.

In other words, Speaker Harwell called a press conference to announce she plans to do nothing to improve access to healthcare and that she won’t throw her support behind Governor Haslam’s plan.

Hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans are waiting for access to affordable health care and Beth Harwell’s response is that they should wait just a little longer and that maybe next year, there will be a plan. Then again, maybe not.

It’s time to take action. Take just a moment and contact Speaker Harwell right now. Tell her it’s time to move forward on Insure Tennessee. Her office phone number is 615-741-0709. Call her and tell her to get to work — we don’t need another task force, we don’t need more delays, we need Insure Tennessee.