CHATTANOOGA — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is touring the state touting his plan for accessing a massive new influx of federal Medicaid funding through the Affordable Care Act.
The Republican governor has negotiated a preliminary deal with the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services department to pay for a two-pronged, two-year pilot program to provide more people in Tennessee with government-financed health coverage.
Haslam is meeting with lawmakers around the state to try and convince them his “Insure Tennessee” program is affordable to the state and makes sound policy sense. That might be a tough sell in the Tennessee Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans who for years have publicly criticized Obamacare as an unprecedented, unaffordable overreach of federal power.
The governor said he’s meeting in small groups with legislators and local political leaders so that they’re comfortable asking “whatever questions they would like.” He’s trying to convince them that his plan is a much more prudent attempt at health reform than the ACA.
On Wednesday, Gov. Haslam and Bureau of TennCare Director Darin Gordon were at Cherokee Health Systems in Chattanooga meeting with House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, Sens. Todd Gardenhire and Bo Watson, and Reps. Marc Gravitt, Ron Travis and Patsy Hazelwood, all Republicans.
Haslam and Gordon have already completed swings through East and West Tennessee, with plans to finish up the support-seeking excursion in Murfreesboro Thursday.
Haslam said his “Insure Tennessee” plan is designed to cover people in Obamacare’s so-called “coverage gap.” That includes those at or below 138 percent of the poverty level who are not already on Medicaid, he said.
“Basically, they are making anywhere from zero dollars a year up to $16,000 for an individual,” said the governor. “The average person makes about $6,000 who would be covered.”
Haslam said “over half” of those who’d qualify for “Insure Tennessee” are currently employed — “but they just can’t afford insurance.” That group would be provided government-financed vouchers in a program called the “Volunteer Plan” to pay for joining their employers’ health coverage.
Another aspect of Haslam’s proposal is called the “Healthy Incentives Tennessee” plan. The governor said it “would allow people to have insurance, but there would also be premiums and co-pays involved, which we think incentivizes people to make healthy choices.”
By way of examples of the kinds of behaviors he said the plan promotes, Haslam suggested “not using the emergency room for nonemergency care when you have other providers available” and obtaining regular health screenings. He said the Healthy Incentives plan also includes “some rewards that allow you to minimize, if not eliminate, the costs out of pocket.”
A special session is scheduled to commence Monday for lawmakers to consider the governor’s plan.
Leader McCormick has indicated he’ll carry the resolution supporting Gov. Haslam’s plan in the House of Representatives. Republicans hold 73 of the chamber’s 99 seats, Democrats just 26.
At present there’s no confirmed sponsor in the Senate, where Republicans control 28 seats and Democrats five. However, Haslam said during a press conference following the meeting with lawmakers that an announcement in that regard will be forthcoming “pretty soon — in the next day or so.”
Haslam has indicted he expects to need all the Legislature’s Democrats to vote for his plan to win its approval.
Gov. Haslam said he’s “purposefully avoiding” the appearance of pressing lawmakers for votes at the meetings. “There is still a lot to be heard,” said the governor. “We are going to have a full week full of meetings. We obviously feel this is the right plan for Tennessee or we wouldn’t be going through this.”
He added, though: “I think it is early for anybody to try and predict where the votes are going to come out.”