The final countdown
That’s how many references Gov. Bill Haslam made to ‘Obamacare’ in his speech to the General Assembly Monday.
The term was repeated Ad naseum during the House Insurance and Banking Committee meeting the next morning – and the theme continued during pretty much all of my interviews that day.
Critics make several arguments against Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan, but their most potent rebuke lies in a single word: Obamacare.
“This is absolutely Obamacare,” said Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin). “We’re increasing entitlements using money appropriated by Medicaid expansion and Obamacare to do what we’re doing today.”
Haslam has denied that notion time and time again. He’s spent the last two weeks of his life trying to convince people this is not Obamacare.
“This is not Obamacare,” Haslam said during his speech. “If it was, it wouldn’t have taken us this long to negotiate.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) echoed his statements on Tuesday, labeling the comparisons as misconceptions.
Will Cromer, the governor’s director of policy and research, explained how Insure Tennessee is different from Obamacare: The plan is tailored to Tennessee, and providers and member can choose whether they want to participate.
Whatever you believe, we can all agree the Obamacare argument is politically loaded.
And whether the argument is true, it’s gaining traction with people.
On Tuesday, I spoke with men and women from across the state. One woman named Sharon woke up at 4:45 a.m. to catch a bus in Sevierville just so she could make it to the committee hearings. (If that’s not commitment, I’m not sure what is.) The conservative group Americans For Prosperity rallied at least 200 people to converge on the Capitol. I interviewed four activists who travelled from different corners of Tennessee.
What are your issues with Insure Tennessee? I asked them.
All four said they didn’t want Obamacare to come to Tennessee.
They spouted many beliefs the Haslam administration has spent the last week trying to dispel. Most involve whether Tennessee can back out of the program after two years if the feds derail the funding structure or their part of the agreement. Officials with the Governor’s office maintain the answer is “yes” – citing a Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion and a letter from the feds saying the state can end the program when it chooses.
When I bring up these points to opponents, they don’t budge. They don’t want to.
“Let’s make [health care] affordable, let’s get people employed so they can get their own,” said Jason Arthur, of Knoxville.
One man drove from Lawrenceburg. He’s a hardworking, part-time machinist. He also lacks health insurance, for the most part. Theoretically, he is someone who could possibly benefit from this plan.
“I’m all for [people] getting health coverage,” he told me. “People need help that can’t get coverage, but I’d like to see it done through something other than the federal government.”
It’s clear many – citizens and lawmakers alike – oppose the idea based on principle alone. That is their prerogative. It’s also a prerogative that could cost the Insure-backers their battle.
But supporters came armed with a rather effective rebuttal yesterday: personal stories.
Haslam’s plan could expand health coverage to almost 400,000 people. Lisa Yattaw is one of them.
“I’m going to go into kidney failure if I don’t get the operation I need,” said Yattaw, of Murfreesboro. “I can’t get it right now because I’m without health insurance.”
Yattaw, a college graduate, said she quit her job for medical reasons, but she doesn’t qualify for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. She said she sees Insure Tennessee as the solution to her problem.
“We’re not asking for handouts, we’re not asking for a free ride, we’re asking for temporary help to get people better,” Yattaw said.
Then, we met Kenneth Wilburn.
“I’m not a lazy man,” Wilburn told me. “I’ve picked cotton since I was five years old.”
He testified that between his disability and his pension checks, he makes too much money to qualify for health insurance. He said years of physical labor resulted in pain. He’d like to get some MRIs done. Maybe attend some physical therapy sessions. That likely won’t happen if Insure Tennessee fails.
“I can’t understand why they would knock somebody who’s been trying to get help, who’s worked all their life, that paid in,” Wilburn said.
It makes me wonder where we’d be now had supporters presented these individuals sooner. Do these personal stories possess the capacity to change the minds of conservative lawmakers?
Haslam’s most recent pitch failed to do that, at least according to Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin).
“As I walked through the hallways, I didn’t hear one single lawmaker say, ‘Hey, I’ve changed my mind,'” Casada said after the governor’s speech.
Some tell me they believe a misconception has hijacked the campaign to expand health care. Others view it as a legitimate concern. As of this morning, we truly don’t know whether the proposal has enough votes to pass the House Insurance and Banking Committee. Chairman Steve McManus (R-Cordova) indicated a vote could happen today, but nobody really knows.
And so, the governor fights on.
His spokesman, David Smith, released this statement Tuesday afternoon:
“The majority of Tennesseans support Insure Tennessee, both Republicans and Democrats, and the governor believes the committees in the Senate and House are doing exactly what they should do. They are taking the proposal seriously, having productive discussions, and are asking questions to better understand it.”
Senate Health convenes at 9 a.m.
Today is critical to the future of Insure Tennessee. What happens today will decide whether the resolution dies – or moves forward.