KINGSPORT, TENN. — Contrasts grew sharper Tuesday night between Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee on their competing solutions to Tennessee problems like health care during the gubernatorial candidates' second debate in Northeast Tennessee.
Dean, a former Nashville mayor, continued to advocate for an expansion of the state's Medicaid program as Lee, a successful Williamson County businessman, panned the idea during the 60-minute-long debate held at an auditorium at Eastman Chemical Co.
"I think it would help hospitals across our state," Dean said, alluding to the closure of nearly a dozen mostly rural Tennessee hospitals in the past few years. "It certainly would help the 300,000 people who are uninsured and it would put our state in a position where we will be healthier."
Dean, who wants to use federal money available under the Affordable Care Act, said people without health insurance don't see doctors for medical checkups and "never get to know about problems they may have and take preventative steps."
Lee, a successful Williamson County owner of a facilities and construction management company, said he believes Medicaid expansion is no answer given what he sees as the main issue.
"I think the most important problem we need to solve in this state is the rising cost of health care," Lee said. "What we have is an unsustainable march toward an ending that's not good for Tennessee" with costs that "far exceed inflation."
He argued "just moving forward without changing the system, without changing the model and putting more money into a system that's already fundamentally broken is the wrong approach" to "actually solving the toughest problems."
Dean fired back and alluded to a new Lee television ad airing in which the businessman says "we shouldn't just throw money at problems. We need to look for 20-year solutions, develop outstanding schools and health care we can afford, all without government interference."
"I know that he's talked about this you need 15- to 20-year planning to get to where we need to be in terms of health care," Dean scoffed. "But this is a real issue that's affecting real people in Tennessee right now."
Lee said "taking federal money is not free money and putting federal dollars into a plan that is going to, ultimately, in my view, fail is a bad idea for every Tennessean."
He pointed to problems that developed when Tennessee expanded the Medicaid program in the 1990s, which later led to budget crises and was eventually slashed by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, leading to the disenrollment of at least 170,000 people.
"I don't want to do that again," said Lee.
Lee also elaborated on his position to address costs, calling for more coordination between components of the health care industry, increased use of telemedicine and partnerships among urban and rural hospitals.
The candidates also disagreed over education, with Dean again criticizing Lee's support of school vouchers which allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.
"I do not believe in vouchers," said Dean, who as mayor championed public charter schools, which he said he believes provide adequate choice to parents and their children.
While not actually mentioning vouchers, Lee said "we have to challenge the status quo" and cited he has been endorsed by the appointed superintendent of Shelby County's school system, the state's largest.
Dean noted his endorsement earlier Tuesday by the Tennessee Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of teachers.
Tuesday's debate was sponsored by the Kingsport Times-News and the Johnson City Press. The candidates' final debate is Friday in Nashville.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.