By Richard Locker
Tennessee lawmakers ended the special legislative session called by Gov. Bill Haslam to consider his health insurance plan for the working poor Wednesday afternoon after a Senate committee killed the plan on a 4-7 vote.
The session began Monday night with the governor's speech to a joint session of the House and Senate in which he appealed for passage of the plan that would have extended federally-funded health insurance to as many as 280,000 working but low-income Tennesseans, including about 35,000 military veterans without health coverage.
The Senate voted to adjourn on a voice vote. In the House, Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley tried unsuccessfully to bring the governor's health plan, Insure Tennessee, directly to the House floor after House committees failed to vote on it. Fitzhugh's effort was ruled out of order by House Speaker Beth Harwell.
The session ended with only 11 of the 132 members of the legislature having voted on it.
The seven members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee who voted to kill the bill were Sens. Mike Bell, R-Athens; Janice Bowling R-Tullahoma; Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains; Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield; and Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City.
Voting in favor of the governor's plan: Sens. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville; Ed Jackson, R-Jackson; Becky Massey, R-Knoxville; and Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey signaled that the fight was over for the special legislative session.
"Governor Haslam's hard work and passion on Insure Tennessee has been made clear this week. While many questions have been answered during this special session, several questions remain unanswered," Ramsey said in a statement.
"Ultimately, the absence of a clear, written agreement between the federal government and the State of Tennessee made passage impossible. Tennessee has always been a well-run, fiscally-responsible state. We could not in good conscience put our stamp of approval on a mere verbal agreement with the Obama administration," said Ramsey.
The conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee, whose CEO had testified against the governor's plan in three different committees, immediately took credit for defeating the plan.
"The Beacon Center applauds legislators for rejecting Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. Instead of supporting this extension of Obamacare in our state, lawmakers stood with the Beacon Center and fought for what was right, choosing taxpayers over special interest groups," the group said in a statement after the vote.
Minutes after the Senate committee vote, the House Insurance and Banking Committee met and the House sponsor of Haslam's plan, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, withdrew the House version from consideration.
The special session began Monday with the governor's speech to a joint session of the legislature in which he appealed for approval of the plan that he negotiated with President Obama's administration over a two-year-period.
The Senate committee heard a short list of witnesses, opening with Justin Owen and Lindsay Boyd of the Beacon Center, which opposed the governor's plan as an "expansion of Obamacare" in Tennessee. They were followed by Charles Howorth of the Tennessee Business Roundtable, a coalition of the state's largest employers which supports the plan, and some doctors and nurses who support the plan.
Tennessee Hospital Association President and CEO Craig Becker issued a statement saying THA members "are extremely disappointed by the action today of the Senate Health Committee. For more than two years, hospitals in this state have advocated and worked hard to find a way to provide healthcare coverage for the uninsured of Tennessee. ...
"Unfortunately, seven members of the Senate Health Committee decided that this plan did not benefit the public health of our state. This decision was made after two days of compelling testimony that reinforced how Insure Tennessee would improve the lives of hardworking Tennesseans and how the plan would strengthen communities, support hospitals and make Tennessee a better place to live. Ultimately, seven legislators made a decision that prevented the full General Assembly from having the opportunity to debate this extremely important issue."
"Like the Tennessee Hospital Association, we are disappointed in the failure of Insure Tennessee in the Senate Health Committee," said Keith Norman, vice president of government affairs for Baptist Memorial Health Care. "As a large health care provider, we recognize that Tennesseans disproportionately suffer from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, lung cancer and a number of other debilitating illnesses. As a result of today's action, more than 400,000 working poor Tennesseans still don't have access to health insurance."
Cato Johnson, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, said: "We believe Governor Haslam put forth a thoughtful, well-constructed, fiscally responsible plan that would have fostered improved health for Tennessee citizens and economic vitality for our state. We deeply regret this outcome, and hope the legislature will reconsider during regular session."
And U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, described the vote as "foolish, sad, sick":
"This vote is foolish because it leaves $1 billion in federal funds each year on the table that could have helped keep hospitals open, boosted our economy, and improved our citizens' health," he said in a statement. It's "sad because it shows inhumanity and disdain for Tennessee's sick and our poorest citizens in need of health care. And it is sick because some of those Tennesseans will die as a result of this decision."
Tempers flared during the Senate committee hearing. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, lashed out at freshman Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, for suggesting that the committee take its work seriously.
And Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who opposed the governor's plan, told Crowe that witnesses keep getting added to the list and asked, "Can we definitively cut off the list of testifiers?" Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing on legal aspects of the governor's plan last week without releasing an agenda of witnesses, which included the head of a conservative research organization in Ohio called the Buckeye Institute.
In addition, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Athens, told his colleagues on the committee during Howorth's presentation that the Tennessee Business Roundtable had endorsed a state income tax plan in 2002. Waving what he said was a 2002 news release from the Business Roundtable, Bell said, "I just want to remind my colleagues that the Tennessee Business Roundtable was one of the main proponents of an income tax in 2002. They are among the biggest supporters of Common Core today."
The Business Roundtable, which represents employers ranging from Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport to AT&T statewide and AutoZone in Memphis, did support the broad tax reform plan proposed by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist that was the focus of intense debate from 1999 to 2002. It failed to win legislative approval and lawmakers instead raised the state sales tax from 6 to 7 percent.
Howorth, a former AT&T executive, told Bell that he wasn't at the Business Roundtable in 2002 and that its board of directors is different than it was 13 years ago. He acknowledged that the organization supports "strong education standards, and we're proud of it."
(c)2015 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)