NASHVILLE -- Democratic leaders are trying to revive Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan that died in last week's special session of the GOP-dominated General Assembly.
Democrats have a series of measures that include the initial resolution authorizing the plan and a bill to let Haslam proceed on his own without lawmakers' approval. A third measure would allow some part-time state workers to join the same state taxpayer-supported health plan that most lawmakers as well as full-time employees are on.
"We may not all agree on the right approach, but we can't sit by and do nothing," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "I think it's time for the Legislature to stop coming up with excuses and start bringing forward ideas."
Haslam's proposal to use federal Medicaid dollars to extend health insurance coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans died last week in the Senate Health Committee on a 7-4 vote.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, told reporters earlier Thursday that Haslam's "market-driven" plan collapsed for lack of detail.
"It was not ready last week, in my opinion," Ramsey said. "Please, if you're going to do that, bring it back when it's in writing."
Ramsey said he doesn't see Insure Tennessee coming back to life in the current session. He thinks just four of the 28 Senate Republicans would have voted for it. Even with all five Senate Democrats, that's still only nine yes votes in the 33-member chamber -- far short of the 17 votes it takes to pass a bill or resolution. Even optimistic estimates by others that seven or eight Republican would also give their vote to the measure, wouldn't have been enough.
Democrats charged Ramsey with stacking the special Health Committee with plan opponents. Ramsey said he put 11 senators on each of the three relevant committees -- Health, Commerce and Finance -- so all senators could see the bill in committee. He said he put two possibly persuadable Republicans on the Health panel, comprised of eight Republicans and one Democrat, to "give it a fighting chance in first committee."
As it turned out, the two -- Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma -- voted no, despite Haslam personally lobbying them. But had the resolution squeaked out of Health, it "didn't have a prayer" in the special Commerce Committee, Ramsey added.
House Speaker Beth Harwell said there also weren't the required 50 Republican votes to pass it on the floor of the 99-member House, where the GOP enjoys a 73-26 majority. Other lawmakers say it might not have passed the first House panel to consider it, the Insurance and Banking Committee.
Harwell and Ramsey said Republicans may win the White House in 2016 and, along with a GOP-run Congress, enact laws allowing states even more flexibility with their Medicaid programs through block grants.
"I think that would be sellable here," Harwell said.
One Democratic criticism of Republican opponents to Insure Tennessee involves the fact that 116 of the 132 legislators, who are not considered full-time, are on the state employee health insurance plan. The state pays 80 percent of premiums. Six of the seven Senate Republicans voting no, including Gardenhire and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, are on the state plan. Bowling is not.
Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, estimated lawmakers put in about 640 hours during the four months or so of a legislative session.
"I don't get the legislators' subsidy, but I don't begrudge those who do get it," Harris said. He noted "legislators work hard and they get sick from time to time and they deserve health insurance."
But so do part-time state workers, he said, adding, "why shouldn't they have this legislative perk?"
Said Ramsey: "We all know the very reason for this. It's a political statement that [Democrats] are making. Are we classified as part-time employees? I don't know whether we are or not. But I do know this: we work 365 days a year. We aren't part-time."
"Let's just cut to the chase here," Ramsey said. "I don't think that's something that's going to move forward."
Haslam spokeswoman Laura Herzog said in an email the administration has not reviewed the Democratic proposals.
But she noted Haslam touched on the topic in his State of the State address Monday.
"The governor emphasized that too many Tennesseans are still not getting health coverage they need in the right way, in the right place, at the right time, and that health care costs are still eating up too much of our state's budget and impacting the federal deficit and nation's debt."
She said Haslam also stated he "wants to work with the General Assembly to address those problems."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.