NASHVILLE— Imagine: A governor overwhelmingly reelected without real opposition only three months ago
is still so popular that his first appearance of his new term before a General Assembly composed almost entirely of his own party members draws such prolonged and hearty applause that he has difficulty persuading them to cease so he can speak.
Now consider: The same governor then presents the key initiative of his second term, one which would bring billions annually to his state and health care within the reach of hundreds of thousands of currently insured citizens and which, moreover, would rescue numerous of his state’s hospitals from imminent insolvency.
Next, observe: That governor sees his plan, called “Insure Tennessee” and carefully developed over a period of years, brought to the brink of rejection within a day of his offering it in this week’s called special session, for no better reason, in the judgment of distressed supporters from the governor’s own party, than that opponents have branded it with the name of a president from the other party.
“If this bill was called Bubbacare instead of being compared to Obamacare, and it ought to be, there wouldn’t be any trouble getting it passed,” was the lament Tuesday evening of newly sworn-in state Senator Ed Jackson, a Republican from Jackson, who, with state Representative Jimmy Eldridge from the same city, wants the bill passed to shore up Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, a model enterprise but a hard-pressed one that serves an enormous West Tennessee area.
The two GOP legislators had been among those contacted on a one-on-one basis over the last two days by Governor Bill Haslam, and they, in turn,. had assured the governor that he and his “Insure Tennessee” proposal still had their support. And they, along with other supporters, like state Rep. Gerald McCormick, Republican majority leader in the state House of Representatives, openly opined that the bill had a good chance of passage it could be brought directly to the floors of the two chambers for a vote.
But first “Insure Tennessee” must undergo trial by fire in various committees in both the Senate and the House, where opponents, pervading the discussion with a variety of procedural stratagems and ideological arguments, seem to have a death grip on the bill.
In one of these, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who prides himself on being the most dedicated opponent of not only “Insure Tennessee” but of Medicaid expansion in general and, indeed, of Medicaid in general, declared flatly on Tuesday that, in backing “Insure Tennessee,” the state’s hospitals were doing no more than seeking a financial “bailout.”
(This, despite the fact that the Tennessee Hospital Association, expressing the will of its member institutions, has pledged to foot the bill for the 10 percent of funding for “Insure Tennessee” that, in two years’ time, the state would ordinarily be responsible for under the Affordable Care Act. That’s 10 percent annually of a sum between $1 and $2 billion.)
Kelsey made his statement while seated next to a dumbfounded Ed Jackson, who, with fellow Jacksonian Eldridge, could only shake their heads later on, at a Tuesday reception at the Sheraton Hotel, at some of what they regard as misrepresentations that have surfaced during the debate.
One of these is the unabated claim by opponents of the bill that the federal government could default on its 90 percent obligation to fund expanded services, two years from now. Governor Haslam, in his Monday-night message opening this week’s special session, had included this line in his prepared remarks: “..I think it’s worthy of mention that the United States of
America has never missed a scheduled Medicaid payment,” but unaccountably, perhaps to avoid the ire of the many fed-baiters in his audience, omitted it in his floor speech.
Members of “Americans for Prosperity,” an opposition group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, whose members were all clad in red shirts, turned up in force for Tuesday’s committee hearings, competing for attention with witnesses in wheel chairs and an infirm and uninsurable East Tennessee man who, hobbling to the witness table of the House Health Committee on a cane, pleaded for the bill, saying, “What’s not broke on me is wore out.”
By the end of Tuesday’s proceedings on the Hill, House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) had let it be known that she had offered to the Governor to prepare an alternative to “Insure Tennessee” if the bill had to be withdrawn. No committee in either chamber had voted yet, though votes were expected on Wednesday — unless the bill had indeed been withdrawn by then.
“It’s all hanging by a thread,” agreed Jackson and Eldridge at the Tuesday night reception, put on for legislators by the National Federation of Independent Businesses. But the two posed proudly and, under the circumstances, defiantly, behind Eldridge’s cellphone, which bore a broadside being circulated by the aforesaid Americans for Prosperity, showing Eldridge in the same frame with President Obama and proclaiming, “Jimmy Eldridge Has Betrayed Tennesseans!”
Meanwhile, it was being taken for granted on Capitol Hill that Wednesday would be a day of judgment on “Insure Tennessee,” during which the bill could either be scuttled, bringing the current special session to a premature end, or somehow given new opportunity to collect support.