Despite two legislative pushes and many protests statewide, leading majority-party lawmakers at the Capitol agree that Medicaid expansion just isn’t happening in Tennessee this year.
Three prominent GOP lawmakers said Tuesday that the most recent attempt to revive Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” plan to expand Medicaid coverage for needy Tennesseans was pretty much dead on arrival. And they are in no mood to see the issue resuscitated yet again, as the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Monday is what advocates are pushing. The Tennessee Justice Center is petitioning the speakers of both the House and Senate to bring an “Insure Tennessee” authorization measure to the floor for a vote by the full Legislature.
But that’s just not happening, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, both of whom were skeptical about the governor’s distinctive Medicaid expansion plan even before it was twice shot down in Statehouse committees.
In addition, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, the Chattanooga Republican who sponsored “Insure Tennessee” legislation in the February special session, told TNReport that he doesn’t support a direct-to-the-floor move, and doesn’t think there’s support to make it happen anyway.
Harwell said in a emailed statement that the House also had a requirement for two-thirds of the body — or 66 members — to vote in favor of bringing a bill directly to the floor. “I appreciate the passion on this issue on both sides. However, under our House rules, I am unable to bring this bill directly to the floor, and bypass the committee process,” she said.
And McCormick said it would be “impossible” to get two-thirds to support suspending the rules and bring it to the floor.
“I’m for Insure Tennessee, but I would be opposed to it based on parliamentary reasons. I think it needs go through the committee process before we do something as major as that,” McCormick said.
Ramsey told reporters Tuesday “Insure Tennessee” faces a similar situation in the upper chamber, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 28-5.
“It takes 22 votes to suspend the rules to bring any bill out of committee. I even told (activists with Tennessee Justice Center) that,” said the lieutenant governor.
And Knoxville physician Richard Briggs, one of the Republican co-sponsors of “Insure Tennessee” in the Senate, said Tuesday while he’d like to see it come up for a full floor vote, he’s under no illusions that’s going to happen given clear opposition to the plan.
“Insure Tennessee” was designed by the Haslam administration in hopes of getting a stamp of approval from the General Assembly to drawn down billions in federal Medicaid expansion dollars made available through President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The governor maintained, though, that “Insure Tennessee” wasn’t really “Obamacare.” Rather, it was a “market-based” approach to government-financed health coverage for the 280,000 or so Tennesseans who fall into the ACA’s “coverage gap.”
Following the second committee defeat of “Insure Tennessee” last month, many vocal supporters of the plan crowding the halls of Legislative Plaza were left angry, distraught and in some cases weeping. At one point a verbal altercation occurred between a protester and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who called the man an “asshole” on video.
Gardenhire said the protester had been harassing him in the bathroom just prior to the altercation.
The Chattanooga Republican told TNReport that since the February “Insure Tennessee” rejection, he’s been the target of a wave of vulgar and harassing phone calls and messages. Gardenhire shared a voicemail from one detractor in which he was accused of Satan worship, labeled a “treasonous traitor to Americans” and asserted to enjoy performing oral sex on the Koch brothers.
Gardenhire said he’s also received death threats. After his second vote against “Insure Tennessee,” he received an email that said, “Hey F**kface. You better increase your health care coverage, because the next time I see you, you’re going to be in the cross-hairs.”
Gardenhire said he’s ignored most of the shabby treatment, but the email gave him “chills,” and he reported it to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Despite the drama and bad feelings and dashed hopes, Gov. Haslam stands by his decision both to bring the bill before the Legislature in the special session, and to get behind the long-shot attempt to resurrect it last month.
“You don’t ever feel bad about raising false hopes in the sense that you’re always trying to get the right thing done, and we felt like that was the right policy, and I still feel like that’s the right policy, so I think it’s worse to never try,” he told TNReport during a Monday press conference in Nashville. “If you think something’s right but to never try, that feels like a bigger error.”
And the General Assembly GOP leadership in both chambers don’t appear to outwardly harbor any ill will toward the Republican governor for throwing his lot in with superminority Democrats on such a major policy issue.
At a press conference last week, Harwell said the governor worked “diligently” for two years on finding a solution for Medicaid expansion that the Republican supermajority Legislature would find palatable.
“The governor’s intentions have always been honorable in this,” she said.
And Ramsey said Tuesday afternoon that Haslam made the choice to support the second coming of “Insure Tennessee,” even though “it was no secret” that “support was lacking.”
Ramsey also noted that because the “Insure Tennessee” resolution arose the second time through efforts by lawmakers acting independently of the governor’s office, Haslam hadn’t seriously damaged his partisan bonafides with Republicans in the Legislature.
Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.