Gov. Bill Haslam has announced that Doug Overbey, a liberal east Tennessee Republican, will sponsor the administration’s Medicaid expansion proposal in the state Senate next week.
The governor made the announcement in Murfreesboro after finishing up the last of nine Medicaid expansion-related meetings with lawmakers across the state that he’s called the last several days. Haslam has been trying to reassure reluctant Republican legislators that his proposal to use federal funding through the Affordable Care Act to fund a new program called “Insure Tennessee” makes good policy sense, and won’t over time start eating further into the state’s budget.
The General Assembly is scheduled Monday to begin deliberating on a “waiver amendment request” asking the federal government to fund Insure Tennessee’s two new programs of health care coverage for about 300,000 uninsured Tennesseans with low or no incomes.
Typically, the Republican or Democratic Party leaders in each chamber carry legislation for a governor who shares their partisan loyalties. In the House, that’s Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who, like Haslam, is a Republican.
But Mark Norris of Collierville, the Republican Leader in the Senate, hasn’t indicated any interest in stepping up to steer the governor’s effort through the legislative process.
Norris has suggested Haslam didn’t do a very good job keeping lawmakers apprised along the way of his negotiations with the federal government on expanding Medicaid.
Even last summer, when the governor signaled that he was making progress with the Obama administration on developing an expansion plan that Haslam thought could win enough votes to pass the GOP supermajority controlled Legislature, Norris was letting it be known he felt out of the loop.
Norris told the Tennessean in August that Haslam seemed to him “not very serious about whatever he has in mind regarding Medicaid expansion, because he hasn’t conferred with the General Assembly.”
In December, the governor announced he’d secured “verbal approval” from the Obama administration and he intended to press ahead for state legislative approval. But earlier this month Norris again expressed discontent with the Haslam administration’s level of communication with Tennessee lawmakers.
Haslam told reporters Thursday afternoon he’s nonetheless confident Overbey can pick up the ball and run with it in the Senate. The governor noted that Overbey, a lawyer from Maryville, has often in the past sponsored health care-related legislation.
“I think he understands the issue very well,” Haslam said.
Overbey was among those who applied for the job of Tennessee attorney general last summer. But he ultimately lost out to Herbert Slatery, the governor’s chief legal adviser at the time.
Requests for comment from Overbey and Norris hadn’t yet been answered when this story posted.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who’s an unapologetic adversary of the governor’s “Insure Tennessee” Medicaid expansion plan — or anything that can be seen to advance Obamacare — said he’s hopeful the friction in the upper chamber is a sign Haslam’s legislation is destine to stall.
“I think this is the first time a majority leader has refused to sponsor the governor’s agenda since the income tax,” Kelsey wrote in an emailed statement to TNReport. “I hope this resolution meets the same fate.”
Both Overbey and Kelsey serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kelsey is the chairman, Overbey the vice chair.
Their antipathy toward one another with respect to the governor’s plan was on display earlier this week, when they clashed over Kelsey’s decision to press forward with a hearing he’d called to try and raise doubts about legal issues surrounding “Insure Tennessee” — and to call into question whether the federal government is bound to abide by Medicaid-related agreements it makes with the state going forward.
The Haslam administration has indicated that, based on an opinion from state Attorney General Slatery and a written statement from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell, it is comfortable with assurances from the Obama administration that if Tennessee isn’t happy with its Medicaid expansion, it doesn’t have to keep it.