JOURNEY FOR JUSTICE
Benton, Tenn.- Etowah, Tenn.
Athens, Tenn.-Ten Mile, Tenn.
Ten Mile, Tenn.-Sweetwater, Tenn.
CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Five miles outside Cleveland, Tenn., the four women walked east on the westbound side of U.S. Route 64, so that their purpose would be visible to the cars and trucks zipping by.
The group was just beginning a 15-mile walk to Benton, Tenn., the first leg of a five-day, 70-mile "Journey for Justice" effort to breathe life back into Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam's defeated plan to expand federally funded health care to 280,000 uninsured Tennesseans. The march, organized by the District 9 Coalition for Insure Tennessee, will go through each of the five counties that make up the state's 9th Congressional District.
The group set out from the Bradley County Courthouse at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Among them was 70-year-old John Dekirk, who was stuck in his job for a time as a younger man because he couldn't risk losing his health coverage over his pre-existing myasthenia gravis and lung disease.
There was Katie Cowley-Carpenter, carrying a black sign that read "Save 280,000: Resurrect #InsureTennessee," and Anna Grabowski, holding a wooden cross and a blue and white "Expand Medicaid" sign. There was Mary Headrick, a retired pediatrician, wearing her white doctor's coat. And Pamela Weston, whose sign read, "If you are in the gap, call the gap hotline at 615-900-GAP3." Grabowski's husband, George, followed in a car stocked with snacks, ready to shuttle people needing rest or a pit stop.
While all four of the women have health care coverage, they were moved to walk for a shared reason.
"We care about people," Grabowski said. "We don't want to see people suffering, dying needlessly. We want Insure Tennessee to be brought back this [legislative] session and passed."
Grabowski said she was there because she knew a woman who couldn't get TennCare and died last year. The woman died of a massive heart attack and complications that Grabowski said might have been discovered and managed with regular check-ups and medicine.
Headrick, who ran for Congress in 2012 and 2014, retired as a physician in 2013 to be a "citizen-activist" full time. She said she'd written a few too many prescriptions that included asking people to work one fewer job.
"I want a roll-call vote this session," Headrick said. "I want to know where our representatives stand."
Cowley-Carpenter said she and her husband couldn't afford insurance for several years, and many in her extended family still can't despite working two and three jobs.
"This is not a political issue, it's a moral issue," she said. "We're a great nation, and we must do better."
Wednesday's march was through the district of Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who also voted against Insure Tennessee.
Bell said he's heard no reports about demonstrators' activities in his district. But he did vaguely hear the sounds of a protest going on at the Capitol Wednesday.
A group of 30 or so ministers, lay people and college students held a "pray in" and sang hymns like "I've Got a Feeling Everything's Going to Be OK" and "This Little Light of Mine" outside Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell's office in Legislative Plaza.
They then walked legislative corridors, singing, and sought to speak with the seven Republicans who voted against the governor's plan. They also sought to pray with them,and did so with Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.
Bell noted he was in the Senate Commerce Committee. While he said he heard people "marching and singing" hymns outside in the hallway, "I didn't know what was going on."
Meanwhile, on the march to Benton, by 3 p.m. the fellowship was down to two. The overcast sky was getting darker. Headrick and Weston were taking a breather, riding in the follow car with George Grabowski. The Polk County Courthouse was still about seven miles away, but Cowley-Carpenter and Anna Grabowski were forging ahead.
"It may be dark when we get there, but we'll get there," Cowley-Carpenter said.
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Will Healey at email@example.com or 423-757-6731.