NASHVILLE - A Hamilton County lawmaker is challenging Republican colleagues to guarantee 1.1 million Tennessee seniors that their Medicare coverage won't be harmed if they succeed in persuading Congress to grant the state control over most federal health care programs under a GOP bill.
"Why do we feel we [state] would be able to do a better job of implementing our Medicare program?" Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, asked last week as the latest version of the controversial Health Care Compact bill came through the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee.
"Could we assure all people who are eligible that they would be able to be covered with Medicare?" added Favors, a retired health care executive and nurse, who called the program "too complex" for state officials to handle.
Despite Democrats' objections, the bill passed the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee on a voice vote. It's scheduled to be heard today in the full committee. The Senate Government Operations Committee will hear the companion bill Wednesday.
The Health Care Compact bill would authorize Tennessee to enter into a "compact" with other states. If Congress approves the states' petition, participating states would have jurisdiction over administration as well as the federal dollars for most federal programs, including Medicare.
A similar bill failed in the waning hours of last year's General Assembly. Both the bill and its sponsors are vague on what they will end up doing should Congress OK the compact.
In explaining his measure last week, state Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said, "We simply want to go to Congress and ask if they would give permission for Tennessee to consider how we would handle health care here in the state by ourselves if we had our own program."
"It doesn't say we will," Pody said. "It doesn't say we won't. It just is going to ask Congress for permission."
Critics say congressional approval is doubtful given Democratic control of the U.S. Senate.
Seeking to address criticisms, Pody said Tennessee is "not bound to anything the other states do or don't do" by joining the states' compact.
"If Tennessee wants to adopt the policy of another state they can, but we have no obligation to do that whatsover," Pody said. "We're only asking Congress for permission to consider if Tennessee can run its own health care program better. That's simply what the bill does."
Efforts to reach Pody on Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.
According to the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, some 1.1. million Tennesseans ages 65 and older were enrolled in Medicare. A legislative analysis of last year's bill estimated the federal government spends about $11.5 billion annually on the program in Tennessee.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet. She originally brought the bill as a protest against the federal Affordable Care Act and its impact on TennCare, the state's version of the Medicaid program for 1.2 million low-income people.
The federal government funds 65 percent of the current TennCare program. Medicaid is 100 percent federally funded. Under the compact bill, the state would get a block grant with funding adjusted annually based on population and inflation.
During last year's elections, Democrats attacked several Republican supporters of the bill. Beavers told reporters at the time that Medicaid could remain with the federal government if the Legislature decides it doesn't want control.