Haslam: TN Republicans ‘Terrified’ of Obamacare

Speaking at Politico.com’s “State Solutions” conference in the nation’s capital on Friday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam got an opportunity to reflect for a national audience on the defeat of “Insure Tennessee.”

Haslam, who participated in a ranging one-on-one interview for about half an hour with Politico writer James Hohmann, described how a significant contingent of the Tennessee GOP’s “super-duper majority” in the General Assembly “were just terrified of being identified with something that said Obamacare.”

Haslam acknowledged that his efforts to distance his “Insure Tennessee” Medicaid expansion proposal from association with the Affordable Care Act were less than successful during the special session earlier this month.

“It was hard to get away from that,” said the governor, who spent this weekend in Washington for the National Governors Association winter meeting. He’s scheduled Monday to attend meetings of the Republican Governors Association, which he currently chairs.

In the Politico interview, Haslam avoided criticizing fellow Tennessee Republicans too harshly for the defeat of “Insure Tennessee,” which would have covered an estimated 300,000 people in the Volunteer State. To a degree, he defended GOP skepticism toward the Obama administration, saying those misgivings are after all rooted in the political history of the health care law.

“You can say that they should get past politics, but some of that is the leftover residue of passing something on a totally partisan basis,” Haslam said, referring to the fact that the Affordable Care Act was signed by President Obama having earned not a single Republican vote in Congress.

And Obama’s vow that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” was in the forefront of Tennessee GOP lawmakers’ minds throughout the “Insure Tennessee” special session, Haslam said. The president’s oft-made pledge while campaigning for the Affordable Care Act’s passage was declared PolitiFact.com’s “Lie of the Year” in 2013.

Haslam said he simply couldn’t overcome the prevailing belief among statehouse Republicans that “We can’t really trust them” when it comes to Washington, D.C. and the federal government.

Nevertheless, Haslam suggested that those doubts were to some degree misguided. “Let me say this — and it is going to sound like an odd thing for a Republican to argue — but remember, the United States of America has never missed a Medicaid payment,” said Haslam. “That is what we are talking about. That is important to remember.”

Haslam said he isn’t giving up on the idea of extending government-financed health coverage to a greater number of lower-income Tennesseans. Asked by Politico’s interviewer if Medicaid expansion is likely to occur “while you’re governor,” Haslam responded, “I certainly hope so.”

“We think the approach that we made was a really practical, smart answer to a real problem,” he said of “Insure Tennessee.” Under the current system, Haslam added, poor people “are getting health insurance, they are getting health coverage, they are just getting it in the wrong way.”

Haslam said he too is critical of President Obama’s health-care reform efforts, “but not really for the reasons that most people start with.” Obamacare wasn’t ambitious enough in addressing the rising costs of health care, said the governor.

“If you are going to attack a problem, you should be really upset when people take the easy apple and don’t go get the hard one,” said Haslam. “The easy apple was, ‘Let’s cover more people.’ That is hard for people to argue against politically. The health care providers love it – they are getting paid for people they weren’t getting paid for that now they are.”

“The hard thing was to attack costs. And in state government and the federal government, that is eating up everybody’s budget,” said the governor.