NASHVILLE - Ministers in Chattanooga and four other cities across the state on Thursday held prayer-filled vigils urging Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, the GOP-led Legislature and the Obama administration to find a compromise allowing Tennessee to expand its Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act.
At a noon event at the state Capitol, dozens of ministers from different churches gathered. Thursday evening, ministers in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and Jackson held their own events.
"Today, we gather here ... to ask our governor and all elected leaders to answer the following question not as politicians but as men and women of faith," said the Rev. Marvin Mercer of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Obion County at the event in Nashville. "How can you turn a blind eye to suffering when you have the power to help and to heal?"
The Rev. Roderick Ware of New Monumental Baptist Church in Chattanooga said if state lawmakers "will do as the clergy have done and pledge support and vote for the governor's 'Tennessee Plan,' then we will have the necessary funds to provide health care for up to 175,000 Tennesseans and create thousands of jobs."
Ware declared "we should do more than just look to heaven for a miracle and instead open our hearts to use the resources provided for us."
For months, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has delayed a decision on whether he will expand TennCare, the state's version of Medicaid, to at least 180,000 low-income Tennesseans as envisioned under Obamacare. Advocates estimate 300,000 or more people would be affected.
Haslam wants federal officials to grant him the ability to put the new population into the privately operated online health care exchange, which is also part of the federal health overhaul.
Federal officials appear open to that, but Haslam also wants the ability to charge enrollees higher co-pays for doctor visits and treatment than are ordinarily permitted under federal Medicaid rules. Haslam has expressed concerns about costs to the state and his plan seeks to trim that spending.
Haslam told reporters that he met last week in Washington with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The governor said he is still trying to craft a plan on controlling costs and promoting health outcomes that will ease Obama administration concerns while persuading legislative Republicans to come along.
Last week's discussion centered on how Haslam's proposed appeals process on decisions affecting enrollees would work as well as how wrap-around services for "medically frail" enrollees would work.
Then, he noted, there were discussions of "what's been the big issue to us - cost sharing."
The "trick," Haslam said, is to create something that will fly with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, the administration and federal health officials.
A number of his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature are adamantly opposed to Tennessee expanding its Medicaid program under Obamacare.
The first three years of the expansion would be funded entirely through federal funds. By 2020, the federal share falls to 90 percent with state expenditures accounting for 10 percent. The state estimates its share would be about $100 million by fiscal year 2019.
Advocates and hospitals say if Tennessee accepts expansion, the state would see some $6 billion in new federal Medicaid funds between 2014 and 2019, money they argue would bolster the state's economy and provide a lifeline to some hospitals, especially in rural areas.
Critics say there is no guarantee the federal government will keep its end of the bargain.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.