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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 — After making an emotional appeal to GOP colleagues on Tennessee's need to expand Medicaid to provide health coverage to some 300,000 working-age adults, state Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, on Wednesday then shelved his bill to do so.

Travis said it was clear he didn't have sufficient support to get the bill through its first hurdle, the five-member House TennCare Subcommittee.

"The vote wouldn't have been there," the retired insurance company owner said after he first made a plea to pass the bill, then told members of the panel he was taking his House Bill 2529 off notice.

Travis said "I took what I could get to discuss it with the speaker in his room with the players to find a way to make this happen. And I believe in that."

The lawmaker said while House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, won't have the bill considered in a summer study committee, the speaker is "guaranteeing me all the players will come to the table and we will look at this bill, Insure Tennessee, and see what makes everybody happy."

In a statement to the Times Free Press, Speaker Sexton's spokesman Doug Kuffner said the leader is not considering Medicaid expansion nor having a summer study committee on the issue.

"Chairman Travis has expressed an interest to meet with stakeholders and other interested parties on his legislation, and we would help provide staffing to assist with his research," Kuffner said. "We remain optimistic that President Trump will approve Tennessee's block grant proposal so we can use the flexibility associated with this fiscally responsible, conservative health care solution to better address the evolving needs of Tennesseans."

Republican Gov. Bill Lee has opposed expansion of Medicaid under the ACA and instead, at the direction of fellow Republicans in the legislature, applied for a federal block grant seeking to give the state flexibility to innovate.

The governor, who has held out the possibility of extending coverage to some uninsured people, has submitted a formal waiver of Medicaid rules with the Trump administration. But critics, including a powerful U.S. House Committee chairman, as well as health law experts, say what the governor is seeking to do is illegal. The Trump administration meanwhile is pushing in the courts to get the law declared invalid.

During the subcommittee hearing, Travis related the experience of his late sister-in-law who had no health insurance and despite having stomach pains initially wouldn't go to a hospital emergency room, saying it was likely the flu. Twelve hours later, he has said, she was forced to go to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a sepsis infection and died soon after.

Travis also relayed the experience of a man who wrote him a letter 18 months ago describing how his wife, who worked at a retail chain, was unable to afford to see a doctor and died from a stroke. The man said he himself had stomach pains, had been diagnosed with cancer by a doctor but couldn't go to a hospital because he had no insurance and couldn't afford it.

"I don't know what's wrong. I guess we'll never know," Travis told subcommittee members. "If he'd had insurance, he would have gone and he would have paid the $25 and seen what's wrong with him. I can't see sitting there with a man being sick and not knowing his outcome just because he don't have any health insurance."

The GOP-run General Assembly in 2011 famously rejected then-Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed Insure Tennessee which would have expanded Medicaid coverage to some 300,000 working adults and proposed work requirements for those able to hold jobs. Republicans have steadfastly refused to consider it since, citing concerns federal funding would end and they would be forced to cut people from the rolls.

Noting that the federal share of the cost remains at 90%, Travis said the coverage issue remains important enough for Tennessee hospitals that they offered to pick up state government's 10% costs, as much as $140 million. During Wednesday's subcommittee hearing, an advocate for the Cancer Action Network and the American Cancer urged lawmakers to expand TennCare.

Asked why Republicans have steadfastly refused to do that over the last nine years, Travis said "I'll admit, I was probably part of the problem. I probably thought it was going to be repealed when we got a Congress that was Republican and a Republican president. But now, here it is 2020 and we still have Affordable Health Care [Act]. We will always have Affordable Health Care, I believe, in this country."

Asked whether the governor had told him not to push the issue, Travis said no. "They may have flagged it [stating their opposition], but I don't know that. This is something I wanted to do. This was something laid on my heart to do. This is something I was going to do regardless of what anybody said. So no, nobody's put any pressure on me."

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

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