Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, wants to expand Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Cover Tennessee health care insurance program, he said this week.
Ramsey, a GOP primary candidate for governor, views the fledgling program as an example of the kind of health care reform needed — a policy that encourages personal responsibility, shares buy-in and, if managed properly, is sustainable over the long term.
“I think it’s a way we could actually solve the problem here in Tennessee,” Ramsey said of Cover Tennessee, which was launched in 2007 as a way to provide a reasonable amount of coverage for workers in small businesses, the self-employed and for people unable to find affordable coverage elsewhere.
“I know the governor had intentions of expanding it, but we have to face fiscal reality in Tennessee, too,” he added. “We can’t be like the federal government and print money. We have to actually pay for things.
“So I would like to see what’s working in that program and expand it, because small businesses are the ones that need health care insurance, and Cover Tennessee could at least be part of that solution,” he continued.
Cover Tennessee was created as a way to offer limited-benefits coverage to the working uninsured. It was never portrayed as a large-scale answer on health-care reform, thus its modest beginning.
The fundamental concept in the program is that the premiums are split three ways, with an employer covering one-third of the premium, the employee covering one-third and the state covering one-third. If an employer did not choose to participate, the employee could pay two thirds of the premium.
The program includes CoverTN for uninsured workers; CoverKids which is free comprehensive coverage for children; AccessTN for those who can’t find insurance due to pre-existing conditions; and CoverRx for providing affordable drug coverage.
CoverTN was forced to suspend new enrollment after Dec. 31, 2009 in order to keep the program manageable. CoverKids also suspended new enrollment late last year but has since reopened enrollment, beginning March 1. Budget factors were cited as the reason for the enrollment suspensions, which was seen as both regrettable for limiting the rolls but also a sign that the program is working and has had a good satisfaction record.
Ramsey said, on his watch, the program would not drift away as some sort of experiment by the Bredesen administration.
“That’s a model I like actually, to allow some minimum coverage to where people can at least have coverage and pay part of it.” he said. “That’s exactly the kind of program I think works as opposed to what the federal government is trying to do, which is to completely take over health care, one-sixth of our economy.”
Ramsey’s support for the program seems to be exceeded only by his disdain for the kind of health-care changes being discussed in Washington. In fact, he sounds downright angry about the direction the national health-care debate has taken.
“I tell you, it has come down to this: I don’t think Washington really cares what passes. They just want something to pass,” Ramsey said. “That’s been obvious to me over the last month or two. I guarantee you there’s hardly a congressman or senator who could tell you what’s in that bill, even the ones who are for it. I don’t think the president could tell you what’s in that bill.
“They will mold it. They will squeeze it. They will make it whatever they can just so they can have a photo-op and stand in front of some flags with senators and congressmen saying, ‘We passed health reform,’ even though it does not solve the problem. That’s what bothers me. That’s no way to enact public policy.”
Ramsey said he ultimately would prefer it if Washington allow states to work out health care problems on their own.
“I’d tell them to leave us alone and don’t force us to expand our Medicaid rolls, when they can operate on borrowed money and we can’t,” Ramsey said. “In Tennessee, in general, we’ve had to make some very tough decisions in the last few years, to remove 140,000 from the rolls.
“We’ve gotten from where it was 38 percent of the state budget and now 26 percent of the state budget, and I’d just tell them to flat-out leave us alone, let us work on this problem as states should, as laboratories, and don’t tell us how to fix it.”
He sees a program like Cover Tennessee as something that could grow.
“We’re working on some solutions a little bit at a time in Tennessee, with Cover Tennessee, that will allow small businesses to buy into it,” Ramsey said. “That’s a program that should be advertised a little more than it is right now, because I think most people don’t know about it.”
Ramsey does endorse a reform concept that’s often been discussed in Washington as a significant policy shift generally more acceptable to opponents of a public-option plan.
“If the federal government could do anything to help us, it would be to allow insurance companies to compete across state lines,” he said. “Right now you can buy your car insurance across state lines. You see what the Geicos of the world and the Nationwides of the world are doing, advertising those lower rates. Competition works.
“You can buy fire insurance across state lines. Why shouldn’t you be able to buy health insurance across state lines? I think competition in the free-market system would help drive down health insurance costs.”