Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 20, 2015

Insure Tennessee fails to win sound bite test

View from the Hill

Sam Stockard

Fresh off a resounding November re-election victory, Gov. Bill Haslam ran smack dab into the reality of Tennessee politics: The Republican Party abhors anything connected to President Barack Obama.

It’s a mindset he could face again this spring.

In the first test of his second term, the Republican governor failed to garner the support of his own party members, even after making an impassioned plea to supermajorities in a rare special session to catch 280,000 Tennesseans in a coverage gap with his Insure Tennessee plan.

Haslam’s proposal, which would have used more than $1 billion annually in Affordable Care Act funding to offer an expanded Medicaid alternative to uninsured working people, never got one word of debate in legislative committees, much less in the hallowed chambers of the House and Senate.

“It’s amazing,” Middle Tennessee State University political scientist Kent Syler says of the resolution’s failure, but not shocking.

Syler calls it “a symptom of one-party rule in the state,” a situation in which legislators envision their face being put next to Obama’s in a TV ad or direct mail during the next GOP primary.

“It takes several minutes to explain (Insure Tennessee) when it only takes 30 seconds to say it’s Obamacare,” Syler explains. “That’s a big problem on this issue.”

Syler also points out the outcome of Insure Tennessee had more to do with the issue than it did with the popularity of Haslam, who had widespread support from business and hospital groups.

After a Senate committee dumped the plan in a 7-4 vote, Haslam was clearly disappointed, even embarrassed that he spent nearly two years of work, numerous trips to Washington, D.C., and countless calls to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to negotiate a waiver to Obamacare.

Legislators made a decision but didn’t do anything to solve the problem, he says.

“The problem is there are hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who need health care and could get that in a way that doesn’t cost the state anything. We have health care costs that are out of control in our state and in our country, and we haven’t done anything to address those two issues,” Haslam says.

“You’re going to see us continue to focus on a way to try and do that. I said from the very beginning it would be difficult to get something that would be agreed to in Washington that could be passed here. And I think what you saw … is a measure of just how difficult that is.”

In the aftermath of the Senate panel’s vote, Haslam isn’t sure what types of changes would or could be made to Insure Tennessee that Washington would accept and the General Assembly would approve. But he says, “It’s not my nature just to give up.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and several other key legislators say the lack of a “clear, written agreement” between Washington and Tennessee hurt the plan.

Haslam says he offered to seek one but he “didn’t get any indication that was going to change a whole lot of people’s votes.”

One serious hindrance was time. The administration didn’t obtain D.C.’s approval until December and didn’t put a waiver into legislators’ hands until the first week of January.

Even though Haslam made a tour across the state to sell the plan, he says he wishes he’d had more time to explain it to people across the state.

The outlook

Asked how this defeat bodes for his second four years, Haslam plays it off.

“I don’t think this is about me. It should never be about the people involved (politically).

“Again, I came here to try to answer problems, and when you go out to Cookeville or Camden or Mountain City or Memphis or wherever you want to go, people are not into the inside politics we’re playing around here.

They’re into ‘What are you doing to answer the problem.’ And I still think that’s what people care about.”

Haslam acknowledges that “certain” legislators never could get comfortable with the policy, couldn’t trust the federal government or were simply afraid it was Obamacare, no matter how hard he tried to prove it wasn’t.

The governor declined to express any disappointment in House Speaker Beth Harwell, who never showed her hand on the matter, or Ramsey, who said he could argue the proposal either way. Harwell may have her own aspirations for governor, while Ramsey was defeated by Haslam in 2010.

“At the end of the day, I’m really disappointed that 280,000 people who could have had health care coverage, at least right now, it doesn’t look like we have a path to get there,” the governor says.

Haslam also refuses to say whether the Legislature has gone too far to the right, or become too conservative, to find a solution in the middle. Yet he expresses concerns that Tennessee’s House and Senate could be edging toward the gridlock in Congress, unable to “solve problems.”

Haslam says he hears comments all the time that he’s too much of a “nice guy” but notes, “Again, I think you’re talking about inside-the Capitol-type stuff here. At the end of the day, we’re going to work our hardest to find the very best answer, and we’re doing everything to sell it.

“I spent almost all of the last two and a half days meeting with people, trying to explain to them why this is the right thing to do.”

Haslam concedes that the plan might be easier to pass in two years when President Obama leaves office.

“I hope we’re not putting everything on the shelf and saying we’re coming back in two years. There’s real lives impacted,” he says.

But while Haslam tells the story of an uninsured Jackson construction worker who lost his job and jeopardized his family when he got sick, it should be noted that 117 of 132 legislators receive health-care coverage through the state of Tennessee’s insurance plan.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.