NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said Monday that Congress should deal with President Barack Obama's health care reform plans in a "straight up and honest" fashion by confronting funding problems head on instead of trying to stick states with costly new Medicaid burdens.
"I mean, don't say, 'Well, I can't pass a tax, I'm going to find some way to lay it off on somebody else,'" Gov. Bredesen said in an interview. "If you can't pass a tax; you can't do it, I guess. There's no free lunches in the world here."
He said governors are in "open revolt" over plans to foist some costs onto states.
The governor's comments came following concerns raised last weekend by governors during the National Governors Association's annual summer meeting. Democratic governors, including Gov. Bredesen, as well as Republican governors voiced opposition to congressional plans to use Medicaid to help meet President Obama's goal of universal health care coverage.
Gov. Bredesen said one U.S. Senate plan would have cost Tennessee as much as $600 million annually. He also said he doesn't believe Medicaid, a jointly funded state and federal program for the poor, is an appropriate vehicle to expand health care coverage.
He suggested the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders may want to pull back and regroup given complications that have them at odds with one another over issues such as taxing wealthier Americans to pay for the program. He noted the Congressional Budget Office recently found the plan won't achieve promised cost savings.
"A lot of the pieces they were counting on, they're not falling in place. CBO has not scored their savings with anything like they think they will bring in," Gov. Bredesen said. "They've ruled out politically several of the sources of additional money that would come along. The governors are obviously in open revolt about the notion of just laying it on them, and rightly so.
"You know at some point you got to step back and say, 'Well, maybe I just need to kind of take a deep breath and put the pieces back on the table and try to arrange them again,'" Gov. Bredesen said.
White House officials Monday evening did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an interview.
The Associated Press quoted President Obama saying, "We can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care. Not this time. Not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake."
But the AP said the president appeared to relax his demands the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate and U.S. House pass a plan before they recess in August.
Other governors are upset about plans to impose costs on states, already reeling from the worst recession in decades.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican who attended the National Governors Association, was quoted by the AP on Sunday saying that while the quest for universal coverage was "noble," he, too, had concerns.
"If we (governors) are asked to pick up on state increased costs in health care, it's going to take away from ... environment, transportation, education, public safety, all the other things that we as states do," he said.
Gov. Bredesen told The New York Times that he was concerned that some U.S. Senate proposals involving Medicaid might become the "mother of all unfunded mandates" on states. He repeated that in the interview Monday as well.
The Times also quoted U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as saying after a closed-door meeting with governors on Sunday that "there's a recognition that states don't have cash right now" and "it's difficult to send states the bill if they don't have the money."
In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Gov. Bredesen, who was considered by President Obama for the HHS post, said concerns over one proposal pushed by U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., boiled over two weekends ago and led to a flurry of calls last week among a half-dozen governors, including himself, U.S. Sen. Baucus and separately with Secretary Sebelius.
The Baucus plan would require states to issue bonds to help pay for their share of extending health care coverage.
Gov. Bredesen said governors pointed out that issuing bonds to fund ongoing programs was illegal in 36 states including Tennessee.
"I think actually he was a little surprised to hear that," said Gov. Bredesen, a former health care entrepreneur who is slated to become the National Governors Association's Democratic co-chairman of a health reform task force.
"I think that piece of it is pretty much gone now," said Gov. Bredesen, but he noted other plans to expand Medicaid remain.
Efforts to contact a Baucus representative were unsuccessful.