NASHVILLE — As Republican senators in the nation's capital continued struggling Tuesday over a replacement agreement on Obamacare, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was in Tennessee, where he told health care providers and public officials "the time to act is now."
"Many in Washington and the media look at the immense health crises that we have facing Tennessee and the country today and they say, 'We can't afford to change our nation's health care policies at a time like this,'" said Price, a former Georgia congressman and physician, at the event sponsored by Healthy Tennessee and the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.
"Well," Price added, "let me suggest to you that we can't afford not to change our health care policies at a time like this."
His comments came amid continuing turmoil among ruling Republicans in Washington, where in the Senate the GOP has a narrow 52-member majority in the 100-member body as it seeks to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
The House has already passed a repeal-and-replacement plan that calls for major spending cuts in the law. The Associated Press on Tuesday quoted President Donald Trump saying that "now the Senate I'm sure will follow suit and get a bill across the finish line this summer."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after one meeting that "we are getting closer to having a proposal," according to multiple news accounts, and he hopes to put it up for a floor vote before Congress' July 4 recess.
While in Nashville, Price spoke to health care professionals, executives and public officials near the start of a two-day conference at Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center.
Price called the turmoil over health care "kind of troubling and frustrating because, regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, we basically all have the same principles when it comes to health care."
That amounts to an accessible, affordable system "that's of the highest quality. We want a system that incentivizes innovation and we want a system that empowers patients through transparency and accountability in choices," Price said.
He said that from the late 1990s until about a decade ago, Tennessee's TennCare program, the state's version of Medicaid, was a walking illustration of an unsustainable program. But Price said the program was later stabilized and has become one of the best-run programs today among states.
The state got TennCare under control, in part, by disenrolling more than 170,000 people.
Price said Obama's ACA program is unsustainable, with rising premiums that Americans and Tennesseans cannot afford on the health care exchanges. The exchanges offer access to private insurance coverage for those with incomes above 138 percent of the poverty level.
Price noted that the exit by insurer Humana from the Knoxville market reflects what is happening in one third of the counties nationwide, where there is only one insurer now offering coverage.
One-third of counties nationwide are down to just one insurer, Price said, adding that in Tennessee three-quarters of the counties have just one insurer and little choice.
Critics say the problem is aggravated by uncertainty over what Trump and Republicans intend to do.
The Alliance for Healthcare Security- Tennessee, meanwhile, denounced Senate Republicans rushing forward with what the group charged is "a secret plan to repeal health care written only by Republicans without public hearings or expert input."
Pointing to previous comments that GOP senators might retain 80 percent of the elements of the already-passed House plan, the group argued that still puts 509,600 Tennesseans at risk of losing health care coverage.
The Alliance for Healthcare said it would also mean that 2.17 million Tennesseans with pre- existing health conditions, including 284,000 children, would be at at risk of losing their coverage.
Other provisions of the House GOP plan would slash federal Medicaid funding for states, including Tennessee, by some $800 billion over a 10-year period. Unlike about two dozen states, Tennessee never expanded its Medicaid program under Obamacare.
The Alliance group also sought to put U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans, on the political spot, demanding they publicly state whether "they agree with this dark-of-night, one-sided, backroom repeal plan" and if they were "ready to rush a health care repeal bill through the Senate to appease President Trump."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.