NASHVILLE - U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius visited Nashville on Thursday to urge Tennesseans to sign up for insurance through the federal health care exchange before a March 31 deadline.
Sebelius said that about 16 percent of Tennesseans are uninsured but eligible for insurance through the federal health care exchange, and she encouraged those who have not done so already to sign up.
"If you are a 27-year-old in Nashville trying to make a break singing at the Bluebird Cafe ... you can find insurance for as little as $104 a month," she said, noting that the figure is less than many monthly cell phone or cable bills.
Sebelius was joined by Amy Speace, a 46-year-old singer-songwriter who was able to find insurance on the exchange for $30 a month with a $500 deductible, thanks to a tax credit. Speace said she did not at first think she would be eligible for insurance on the exchange because she already was covered by a high deductible plan through a musicians group. Despite that coverage, she nearly had to declare bankruptcy a few years ago when she developed laryngitis and ended up owing $5,000 in medical bills. She was only saved from bankruptcy by the help of a charity.
Since she enrolled through the exchange in November, Speace said she has been on the phone with every musician she knows, encouraging them to sign up for insurance.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean also joined Sebelius, saying that after the Affordable Care Act passed the city pulled together a team of people who are holding 200 events each month to provide information about and help with enrolling in a health insurance plan.
Dean said the city has done much to encourage active, healthy lifestyles, but residents also need access to doctors and preventative care.
"This insurance plan came at a time when we were trying to move the dial on health rankings in Tennessee," Dean said.
Sebelius also made a plug for expanding Medicaid in Tennessee, saying that the state is losing out on $6.2 million a day in federal funds. Sebelius said 520,000 uninsured Tennesseans would qualify for expanded Medicaid. And she said that taxpayers and hospitals are currently footing the bill for their care.
The state estimates that 181,700 Tennesseans would qualify for expanded Medicaid. State and federal health officials were not immediately able to account for the discrepancy between the two estimates.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year declined to accept the Medicaid money without special arrangements for the state. So far, nothing has come of that, and some Republicans in the Legislature have signaled reluctance to accept any deal with the federal government.
Haslam met with Sebelius twice during a visit to Washington last month and ended up asking her to make a counterproposal to Tennessee's call for using the federal money to subsidize private insurance and promote healthier lifestyles through a series of incentives.
The governor told a reporter that he had no plans to meet with Sebelius when she came through Nashville on Thursday.
"She didn't ask," Haslam said.