Opponents rally in Nashville against growth of TennCare

photo Scott DesJarlais
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Opponents rallied Sunday at the state Capitol against expanding TennCare to an estimated 182,700 people under the federal health care law, hoping to pressure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and GOP lawmakers to reject any such move.

"We can't fight this alone," state Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, told the tea party and libertarian crowd of 100 to 125 people assembled on Legislative Plaza. "I'm here to ask you to help us by making your voices loud and clear to the legislators that we don't want Obamacare in Tennessee."

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a Jasper physician, delivered a critique of the 2010 health care law. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said expanding Medicaid "sounds good."

"But if it's not sustainable, it's kind of almost cruel to give somebody something only to know it's probably going to be taken away sooner than later" because of federal spending and deficits, DesJarlais said. He cited the impact in 2005 when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen slashed 170,000 people from TennCare rolls to control costs.

While hospitals and advocates for the poor argue that federal dollars paid by Tennesseans will simply go to other states if the state doesn't expand TennCare, DesJarlais said, "I'd like to think that Tennessee would like to lead from the aspect of being responsible."

House and Senate committees are expected to hear testimony about the expansion Tuesday.

Haslam for months has been weighing the pros and cons of expanding TennCare.

Part of the Affordable Care Act encourages states to enroll more people in their Medicaid programs to meet next year's mandate for universal insurance coverage.

The federal government has promised to pay the full cost of expansion for the first three years and 90 percent thereafter. Tennessee would get $418 million extra in the first year and $1 billion in the second year. When the government share drops to 90 percent, the state's cost would be about $100 million a year, according to the TennCare Bureau.

The Tennessee Hospital Association has pushed hard for expansion, arguing hospitals would lose billions over the next 10 years because of planned cuts in the Medicare program for seniors.

Hospitals last month released a poll saying 60 percent of Tennessee voters surveyed back expansion.

Durham has legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would forbid the expansion. It's not up for a vote until next week, he said.

But Durham hinted that Kelsey could try to force the issue in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee meeting Tuesday.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, have been skeptical about the expansion, but last week they told reporters that lawmakers still are making up their minds.

"I think they'll listen with an open mind," McCormick said. "There are some other facts that have come to light. ... That's why I have an open mind about it."