Gov. Bill Haslam announces a healthier communities initiative at the state Capitol in Nashville on March 11, 2015.

NASHVILLE -- After watching his Insure Tennessee plan belly-flop in last month's special session, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he's encouraged that a version now being pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers cleared a major hurdle this week.

"We still have a very difficult path, but that doesn't mean we're giving up at all," Haslam told reporters Thursday. "One of our hopes is that the more chance this has for discussion, the more some of the objections and questions that people had can be answered."

In a 6-2 vote Wednesday night, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved a resolution allowing Haslam to proceed with his proposal. He is seeking to use federal funds to extend Medicaid coverage to an estimated 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted against the proposal in subcommittee and was one of the no votes in the full committee. Watson declined to discuss his reasoning Thursday but said he will talk about it later.

Watson will get another vote Tuesday in the Senate Commerce Committee, whose nine members include a number of Insure Tennessee critics.

Among them is Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, one of seven Republicans who voted to kill the bill in the restructured Health Committee during the February special session.

Asked whether he might vote differently, Gardenhire said, "I haven't seen what the amendments are. When I see all that, I'll take a look at it and see if they take care of all the objections that I had. I have to wait and see."

One objection, he said, is there is "no guarantee" on the offer by Tennessee hospitals to fund the state's share of the program in future years.

The federal government would pay the entire cost in the first 18 months. That share would dwindle to 90 percent by 2021, with the state picking up 10 percent.

Hospitals, desperate to see the $2.8 billion due from the feds, have volunteered to pay the state's share. Gardenhire wants a firmer commitment.

Gardenhire also wants to know exactly how many enrollees there are, saying the figure has fluctuated wildly.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who re-introduced the Insure Tennessee resolution, said supporters are "certainly pleased" by Wednesday's vote in the Health Committee.

"I think the vote shows there's significant and growing support," he said.

Yarbro is the lone Democrat on the panel. Five Republicans voted for it, among them Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, who sponsored Haslam's resolution in the special session. Overbey has signed on to the resolution and is the lead sponsor.

A similar resolution is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville told The Associated Press on Thursday that the bill faces "tough sledding" in the Commerce Committee.

But asked later by reporters how the bill might fare, Ramsey said, "I honestly don't know." Members "need to vote their conscience based on the facts that they hear," the speaker said.

Ramsey said he hasn't studied changes to the resolution but has "lots of concerns about the bill."

The largest, he said, is "nothing's in writing" saying the state could kill the two-year pilot should it prove unworkable.

The resolution now bears several amendments aimed at easing concerns and generating support.

One involves a six-month "lockout" provision for people who repeatedly fail to pay their premiums.

A second would keep Haslam from implementing the expansion until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a separate challenge to President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. The case involves whether people who buy insurance plans on federal rather than state exchanges qualify for federal subsidies to help them pay premiums. Tennessee is among the states that have a federal exchange.

Another amendment requires written federal assurance that Tennessee can opt out at any time.

During the special session, Haslam had a letter from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell agreeing to that, but critics said that wasn't solid enough.

Haslam told reporters Thursday that all the discussion helps.

"I don't think it's a bad thing at all for it to be discussed every chance that it gets to be discussed," the governor said. "Obviously we're hoping it passes, but if it doesn't pass, there's still that much more airtime for the issue and for people to understand it."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.