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District 31 state Rep. Ron Travis speaks as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam visits the Bledsoe County Courthouse in Pikeville in 2013 to announce Community Development Block Grants for the county and for the city of Pikeville. / Staff file photo

NASHVILLE — Republican Rep. Ron Travis on Wednesday filed a Medicaid expansion bill seeking to resurrect much of former Gov. Bill Haslam's failed Insure Tennessee plan and extend coverage to as many as 300,000 low-income, working-class men and women in the state.

The retired Dayton insurance agency owner hopes to persuade his fellow majority Republicans, who in 2015 and later repeatedly rejected Haslam's plan, to go along. But he acknowledged it won't be easy.

"I'm going to try like the dickens," he said. "Because I think it's the right thing to do."

The bill is co-sponsored in the Senate by fellow Republican Richard Briggs, a physician.

If approved, it would direct Republican Gov. Bill Lee to submit a waiver to the federal government within 180 days asking for "medical assistance coverage for the same population groups and services as the Insure Tennessee proposal," according to the bill.

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It would allow Tennessee to join the ranks of 36 other states and the District of Columbia, where millions of people receive coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The bill also allows Lee's pending request for most federal dollars for its TennCare program to come through a Medicaid block grant and for giving the state far more flexibility in how the money is spent.

"It goes back to that group of people who are working people and making less than 138% of poverty and can't get any help — when the money is there," Travis said. "Tennessee is sending it up there. There's 38 states that do it now. Kansas is probably going to do it this year, that's 39. And if it's such a bad plan would [Vice President] Pence have done it in Indiana?"

If the bill passes, "we're going to give you health care," Travis said. "We're going to have a co-pay on there, we're going to have work requirements on there. If the federal government ever stops paying for it, I'm sorry, that's not our fault. We will have done what we're supposed to do."

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Ron Travis

When Lee ran for governor in 2018, he cited his opposition to Medicaid expansion.

Asked how he can overcome many GOP colleagues' staunch opposition, Travis said, "I think in their heart we do have some support in the House from Republicans. I know it's a stretch, I do know it's a stretch, but I really think the money's in Washington and it's set aside for this expansion we didn't make."

Travis shared a personal experience involving his wife's sister. According to Travis, she had complained of stomach pain but having no insurance refused to go to the hospital, thinking it was some type of virus.

Not long after, Travis said, his sister-in-law said she "can't stand it anymore" and went to an emergency room. "Twelve hours later she died of sepsis. If she would have had health insurance and had a plan that would have paid some co-pay, give her some relief where she wouldn't have had a $4,000 or $5,000 bill, she would have been here today.

"Now tell me, what's a life cost?" Travis said. "What's it worth — $3,000, $4,000? I think it's worth a lot more than that. It's a story to be told. It's not just my story. There's a lot of stories out there just like my story."

A number of advocates and Democrats blame Tennessee's refusal to expand Medicaid under the ACA for a variety of woes, including the state having the second highest of rural hospital closures in the nation.

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Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, debates a proposal allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline to place children with same-sex couples because of their religious belief without facing penalties on the first day of the 2020 legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Democrats say they're supportive of Travis and Briggs' bill and urged other Republicans to support their effort. Advocates say Tennessee is turning down $1.4 billion a year for hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans by refusing expansion.

Calling introduction of the bill "great news," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said, "we should never let politics stand in the way of doing the right thing on health care."

"Whether you're a Democrat, a Republican or independent, every parent wants to be able to take their kid or themselves to the doctor when they get sick," said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis. "Family health coverage and strong community hospitals are not and should never be partisan issues. — We'll work with any Republican to get it done."

Under federal law, she said, Tennesseans who have jobs but are not offered health insurance through work could obtain health coverage through TennCare, the state's Medicaid program. Enrollment would be limited to Tennesseans who earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line — $23,791 for a single parent.

Akbari also cited a recent University of Tennessee study showing nearly 7 percent of Tennesseans – or about 450,000 Tennesseans – don't have health coverage, largely because they cannot afford it.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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