Senate panel advances Haslam's Insure Tennessee proposal

Friday, March 20, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 12

NASHVILLE (AP) - A revived version of Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans on Wednesday cleared its first full Senate committee.

The Senate Health Committee voted 6-2 to advance the Insure Tennessee proposal to the commerce committee, where it is expected to face difficult prospects. Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has predicted that the measure won't make it to a full floor vote.

The resolution would allow Haslam to draw down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid money over the course of the two-year pilot program. State hospitals have agreed to cover the state's $74 million share.

Haslam had been rejected in his previous attempt to seek authorization for the plan during a special legislative session last month.

The renewed measure is sponsored by freshman Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, the lone Democrat on the committee. It includes three changes designed to ease various conce rns raised about the measure during last month's special session. They include:

- Adding a "lockout provision" for enrollees who fail to pay premiums, similar to one approved for Indiana's plan.

- Calling on Haslam to wait to put the plan into effect until after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on health insurance exchanges.

- Requiring written confirmation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that Tennessee could drop out of the program if costs outstrip expectations.

Joining Yarbro in voting for the resolution were Republican Sens. Richard Briggs and Becky Massey of Knoxville, Ed Jackson of Jackson, Doug Overbey of Maryville and Rusty Crowe of Johnson City. Crowe had voted against the measure when it failed 7-4 in a Senate panel during the special session.

Voting against the resolution were Republican Sens. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge and Bo Watson of Chattanooga. Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald abstained in the full committe e after previously voting against the measure in the subcommittee vote.

"The vote shows that there is significant and growing bipartisan support for Insure Tennessee," Yarbro said.

McNally raised concerns about how the state would go about winding down the program if officials decided they no longer wanted to participate. He cited legal challenges raised after then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, cut 170,000 adults from TennCare because of escalating costs.

TennCare Director Darin Gordon told the panel that the state already has a mechanism in place for un-enrolling people stemming from the 2005 cuts.

"We don't have to go back and do that again," he said. "It's in the existing waiver."

Massey urged Gordon to ensure enrollees would be informed that the program could be temporary.

"I've had a number of folks who I've talked to who have said they didn't have insurance and they were working, but they qualified into this gap," she said. "And if they had the opportunity to take it for two years or not at all, they were good with just the two years."

Opponents of the Insure Tennessee proposal said they objected to adding to the federal debt by drawing down the money under President Barack Obama's health care law. They say they don't trust the federal government to keep promises to allow Tennessee to withdraw from the plan if it ends up being more expensive than expected.