A different way to insure Tennessee

A different way to insure Tennessee

February 18th, 2015 in Opinion Free Press

Rep. Todd Gardenhire talks about his immigration legislation during the Times Free Press sponsored Legislative Roundtable on Jan. 06, 2015

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

If Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, feels like he has a target on his back, it's no wonder.

He was one of the seven state senators in a special committee that last week voted down Gov. Bill Haslam's carefully considered Insure Tennessee plan that would have offered health insurance for low-income residents in the state who otherwise might not be able to get it.

This page believed the pilot program was worth trying for at least the two years in which the federal government would be paying all of the freight, but the senators felt otherwise.

Unable to pass out of the first committee in which it was considered, the plan is all but dead, though various factions have made peeps about resurrecting it.

Gardenhire, while maintaining that he implicitly trusts Haslam, believed all the i's had not been dotted or the t's crossed in the plan. Unanswered questions and what-ifs kept running through his mind, he said.

When it was all said and done, though, the senator was excoriated as a tool of the tea party, a stooge of the Koch brothers and a hypocrite for having state medical insurance but denying it to those not as well off.

As the hypocrite label gained traction, with six of the seven special committee "no" voters on the state insurance plan, the president of the Tennessee State Employees Association, Bryan Merritt, held up his hand.

He felt the state insurance plan had become a pawn in a ridiculous game of name-calling. Instead of the plan being a taxpayer subsidy, he said, it is "a benefit of employment that every state employee earns by their service to the state of Tennessee."

"Anyone who says this is a subsidy simply does not understand insurance," Merritt said. "Legislators who do not enroll in the state insurance plan typically have access to other insurance options through their private employment or family. [But] not all legislators have the luxury of that option."

He emphasized the insurance is not free but that employees pay both 20 percent directly and then receive a reduced salary in exchange for it. "In effect," he said, "state employees pay for all of the insurance they receive one way or the other."

Merritt also took on the charge that legislators were reaping the benefits of state insurance as part-time employees.

In truth, he said, "they are subject to being 'on call' to their constituents seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They earn their right to state insurance every day."

Gardenhire has private insurance but said he didn't think the state insurance was a choice. Merritt said he hoped all the inaccurate information floating around won't persuade senators to make a decision in haste that would hurt them.

"We would hope no legislator feels they must withdraw from the state insurance system because of inaccurate, disingenuous political attacks over this benefit," he said. "The debate over Insure Tennessee should be focused on the merits of the proposal."

Meanwhile, Gardenhire, neither a tea party devotee nor beholden to the Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity organization, has other irons in the fire. He'd like to see legislators this session pass a bill allowing some undocumented immigrant students to be able to pay in-state tuition rates to attend Tennessee public colleges and universities.

The students would have to have gone to a state high school for three years, graduated from a state high school and applied for U.S. citizenship.

Gardenhire isn't asking anyone to give the students' illegal immigrant parents a pass or to extend the privilege to students who have just arrived in the country. He just wants the students who desire higher education -- and can pay for it -- to be able to have it at the rates of other students who live in the state.

He points out correctly that college-educated immigrants use far fewer government services than those who are not college educated. Statistics also would bear out the fact that, as graduated workers with higher-wage jobs and as citizens, they contribute more to the economy.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a Gardenhire-sponsored bill that allowed United States-born children of illegal immigrants to attend Tennessee colleges at in-state tuition rates. When he also tried to push through a version of the bill that's now before the legislature, it was attacked and eventually withdrawn. This year, the bill has support from business groups, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Passing the bill is the right thing to do, especially for the future of the workforce of the next generation, and is a much better exercise for senators than standing still in the face of uninformed name-calling.

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