Haslam Optimistic New HHS Head Will Work With TN on Medicaid Expansion

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he expects discussions about Medicaid expansion in the Volunteer State will come up this week at the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville.

Sylvia Burwell, the new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, is expected to attend the NGA meeting, Haslam told reporters following a grant announcement in Dunlap Tuesday. She was appointed to the post June 9.

Despite the fact that it’s been about a year and a half since Haslam said he wanted to develop a special “Tennessee Plan” for accessing Affordable Care Act money to expand government-financed health insurance for the state’s lower income residents, there’s been little visible movement toward a compromise.

In the meantime, the Legislature has passed a law requiring that the General Assembly sign off on any agreement the Haslam administration reaches with Washington for it to take effect. Republicans dominate in the statehouse, and many have indicated they’re in no way whatsoever interested in facilitating any aspect of Obamacare.

Still, the governor said, new blood at HHS may mean novel approaches will be considered by those administering the ACA at the federal level.

“We’ve always had hope that there’s something to work out, or we would have just quit a long time ago,” Haslam said. “But I think obviously whenever you introduce somebody new into the process, you hope it’ll be somebody who can help get some of the logs unjammed.”

Haslam said he’s met Burwell previously when she was in a different position, but this week’s meeting in Nashville would be the first chance he’s had to speak with her since she was appointed head of the department that oversees the execution of Obamacare policies.

Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s first appointment to that role, resigned on April 11, in the wake of months of criticism over the problematic roll out of the Affordable Care Act federal health care exchange.

According to the Affordable Care Act, if Tennessee agrees to expand TennCare, the federal government will pick up the tab for the coverage through 2016, and provide part of the cost after that.

Haslam initially held out for a waiver from HHS that would allow him to establish a “third way,” and use federal money to subsidize private insurance to extend coverage to 175,000 uninsured Tennesseans.

An agreement was never reached between Sebelius and Haslam, but Haslam has continued to say that he is still working on finding a way to reach a middle ground between the Obama administration and Tennessee’s Republican super-majority in the General Assembly.

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus sent out a press release last week referencing a recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors that “lays out the fiscal, economic and moral failure caused by the Haslam administration’s refusal to expand Medicaid in Tennessee.”

But there is concern among those opposed to expanding the state’s poverty health care program about whether the federal government can afford to do that, as well as what the state should do in the case that the money for the program is not forthcoming from federal officials.

Back in the mid-2000s, under Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, Tennessee had to remove more than 300,000 from TennCare coverage, due to rising costs and lack of funding, a problematic time that is often pointed to by opponents of Medicaid expansion.

Haslam was in Dunlap to award a transportation grant of $591,141 to the city for them to help connect nearby residential areas with the downtown education centers and business district.

The NGA meeting begins Thursday, July 10, in Nashville, and runs through July 13.