TN Democrats push for Insure Tennessee revival

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, left, Sen. Bo Watson, center, and Rep. Gerald McCormick talk during a meeting at the Times Free Press offices Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Chattanooga.

As Tennessee Democrats fight to revive Gov. Bill Haslam's twice-killed Insure Tennessee proposal, the bill's Republican House sponsor says he doubts the bill will resurface for a vote anytime soon.

"I think if [Haslam] thought he could win, he would try to do it again. And right now I don't think he could win," said Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, referring to the proposal that aims to expand TennCare to 280,000 low-income people without impacting the state's budget.

Republicans in Senate committees shot down the proposal two times this legislative session.

The session ended last month, but Tennessee Democrats say they will keep the issue alive into the summer. On Wednesday, they held a news conference at Legislative Plaza in Nashville to try to pressure majority Republicans to hold another special session for Insure Tennessee.

"We in our caucus, the fighting 26, want to keep pressing on this issue," House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told reporters. "We want to keep it on the front burner."

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said Wednesday the governor "doesn't think calling the Legislature back into a special session without a different path forward would be productive."

But Haslam told reporters earlier this month he still thinks Insure Tennessee is "the right idea," adding that "obviously we have to do something to change the impression of the legislators." He said he'll continue to look for "things we can do in the program that Washington will let us" do.

The governor said he hopes lawmakers see over the summer that Tennesseans "really do want to see Insure Tennessee happen."

photo JoAnne Favors

Fitzhugh also said lawmakers need to give more ear to constituents. Asked by reporters whether anything had changed regarding the GOP-controlled General Assembly, he pointed to the poll released by Vanderbilt University earlier this month that found 62 to 63 percent of Tennesseans say they support expanding coverage to low-income people.

In a roundtable with Times Free Press editors and reporters earlier this month, Sens. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, took issue with the poll.

Gardenhire said the focus on the Insure Tennessee results was overblown when most Tennesseans said lawmakers should make the state's economy their priority. Watson argued that just because people support expanding insurance, it doesn't mean they support Haslam's plan.

McCormick said he still believed the plan was "a risk worth taking," though it may be off the table now.

"I think the only way it comes back up is if people in the various districts across the state during the off-season go to their legislators and say they want us to bring it back up."

While Gardenhire has been targeted by local activists for voting down Insure Tennessee twice, Watson says he has heard little from constituents in his district about the issue.

"I've had more calls from my district about the change in the [state] logo than about Insure Tennessee," he said.

But Democrats say they can still build enough support to pass the bill. With 26 Democratic votes, Fitzhugh said, backers just need 24 votes from across the aisle to pass a bill in the 99-member House.

"Why wait another six or eight months for these folks to start getting the health care they deserve?" Fitzhugh said.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, criticized Republicans for making the issue "political football," charging that they "have been using politics to prevent people from benefiting from what they could have received."

Contact staff writer Kate Belz at or 423-757-6673.