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Doug Overbey

NASHVILLE -- The sponsor of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee legislation says he agreed to carry the measure after becoming convinced that the program "is uniquely crafted to meet our specific needs while utilizing conservative principles."

"Insure Tennessee brings market principles and individual responsibility to the program," Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, said in a statement Friday. "The program is designed to control health care costs and improve access to many working poor Tennesseans who would otherwise have no access to affordable health insurance."

Haslam needs legislative approval to seek a waiver of federal Medicaid rules to extend health coverage to some 280,000 to 300,000 low-income Tennesseans. Overbey stepped up as sponsor after Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, declined to carry the bill.

"This program is especially important to struggling rural hospitals that lost funding under the Affordable Care Act for treating poor patients who cannot pay," Overbey said. "Unless it is approved, the loss of this funding could lead to the closure of some of our rural hospitals, meaning life and death for citizens in these areas to get to the nearest hospitals in a time of medical crisis."

However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, an opponent of Haslam's proposal, fired a political shot over Overbey's bow on Thursday with a Twitter missive.

"I would encourage @SenDougOverbey to give Arkansas Rep. John Burris a call," Kelsey tweeted.

Burris, "architect" of Arkansas' Medicaid expansion plan, lost his bid for a state Senate seat last year, according to news accounts.

Earlier this week, Overbey took Kelsey to task in a Judiciary Committee hearing in which two conservative critics took aim at Haslam's plan.

Also Friday, the House Democratic leader said an "overwhelming majority" of the 26 House Democrats will support Haslam's proposal.

"Insure Tennessee is not traditional Medicaid expansion. This approach is much less generous in terms of coverage and benefits than House Democrats would prefer, but we understand the numbers," said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh.

The legislation is "not perfect," he said, but he added, "Whatever political differences may exist, we can all agree that the lives of the 200,000 Tennesseans this plan covers far outweigh any objection raised by special interest groups."

He also took a slap at Republicans for dragging their feet for two years on expanding TennCare, saying the delay harmed the state's citizens.

"After 349 days and $872,500,000 lost, Governor Haslam put forward Insure Tennessee as a conservative counter-proposal to traditional Medicaid expansion. Churches and hospitals, business leaders and community activists, chambers of commerce and workers organizations have all expressed their support for this plan."

Haslam has said getting his proposal passed in the Tennessee General Assembly will depend on Democratic support.

A special legislative session on Insure Tennessee will begin Monday.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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