His full name was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. But, in recorded world history, the tyrannical Roman Emperor "Nero" is infamously known for having "fiddled while Rome burned." Nero's apparent indifference was actually motivated by his own selfish purpose, which was to have the prolific fire clear land so he could build a new palatial estate. It did just that, but it was also responsible for taking thousands of lives in the process. Strangely enough, even before and after the great catastrophe, historians have noted the narcissistic Nero, for the majority of his 14-year reign, still managed to enjoy an inexplicable popularity among the common people of Rome.
Of course, no one would even begin to compare the despicable Roman dictator to the affable and fair-minded Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, except in the sense that both have enjoyed surprising popularity for what many might view as no apparent reason. Yet, when it comes to the thousands of Tennesseans who lack health care, Haslam's dallying on addressing their needs by delaying the presentation of a plan on expanding Medicaid coverage is as damaging to the uninsured as Nero's great fire was to the demise of common Romans.
Late last week, Haslam coyly hinted he may be nearing the release of a unique "Tennessee" plan for expanded health-care coverage for the more than 100,000-plus people who've slipped through the cracks of the state's TennCare system.
All of us, including those lucky enough to have some type of medical insurance, know someone who doesn't have any: A single mother of three; an elderly friend on a fixed income; a family that worries that every bout of flu-like symptoms is going to lead to a health condition that might worsen and require medical care.
In reporting on Haslam's negotiations with the federal government, I spoke last week with one of Memphis' foremost health-care experts, Scott Morris, CEO of the Church Health Center. He labeled as "immoral" the fact that "states on the west side of the Mississippi River, such as Arkansas, now have established health-care exchanges, while those living east of the river continue to struggle without care."
Not all states have put on their political blinders to the opportunity that's being offered by the Affordable Care Act. In Kentucky, where previously 600,000 people were uninsured, more than 400,000 have enrolled for Medicaid under the state's "Kynect" program. The rest are choosing among state-approved insurance plans and can compare monthly premiums and other costs like co-pays. In the process, 17,000 new medical jobs are projected to be created, with a positive economic impact to the state of nearly $16 billion over the next six years. Despite all the negative propaganda spread by those opposed to the exchanges, the federal program pays 100 percent for a state's coverage expansion for the first three years and gradually reduces to 90 percent by the year 2020. What's provided judicial cover on the issue for reluctant state participants, such as Tennessee, is the United States Supreme Court's 2013 ruling that governors and lawmakers could opt out of widening their Medicaid rosters. The Tennessee General Assembly immediately jumped on the loophole and passed a measure assuring they will have final approval of any expansion plan.
All of this squarely puts the onus of leadership on this issue on our state's version of Nero. Haslam most assuredly will be returned to the governorship in November, but his record on taking decisive stances in his first four years has been spotty at best, despite his popularity numbers. He voiced only words of caution in the titanic Memphis and Shelby County school merger issue. As numerous gun carrying bills floated through the legislature, his public opposition was passive. On health care, he's babbled what I've often called benign "Haslamese." He wants to help the uninsured, but it's got to be cost effective and it has to pass what will be formidable opposition in the legislature. If he indeed does come up with a plan, it won't be easy to pass. Haslam will have to use the bully-pulpit of his elected position, and his popularity, to do the right thing, or at least try.
I ask you, governor, what is your legacy now? What do you want it to be?
Nero "fiddled" and Rome burned. Men, women, children — black, white, and brown — in Tennessee are trapped in the fiery hell of having to ignore pain and suffering and serious diseases with no way to afford medical coverage. Governor, quit fiddling, and please do something to help.