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VOL. 131 | NO. 85 | Thursday, April 28, 2016

Speaker Harwell's Health Care Task Force Holds First Meeting

ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Members of a health care task force assigned with proposing alternatives to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan on Tuesday stressed their desire to include "circuit breakers" to prevent out-of-control costs.

The panel was appointed by Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville earlier this month to design the plan expanding access to health coverage to present to the federal government this summer.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini criticized the panel as a "political show" to give Republicans cover for voting last year to reject Haslam's plan to extend coverage to 280,000 low-income people in the state.

Harwell had also come under pressure from health care advocates who had bought space on 20 billboards across the state to draw attention to the failure of Insure Tennessee.

Martha Ingram, a Nashville philanthropist and one of the state's wealthiest citizens, said she got involved because she thought lawmakers were not fulfilling their responsibilities to citizens.

Harwell said she has been working with health care experts at Vanderbilt to develop a new plan since shortly after the Insure Tennessee proposal failed last year.

In announcing the task force, Harwell said she wants it to develop a plan including conservative ideas like encouraging greater responsibility for enrollees, creating health savings accounts and providing more support for people trying to rejoin the workforce.

While it was left unsaid at the announcement, having the plan drawn up by four conservative House members who had been critics of the Insure Tennessee proposal may also help skeptical Republicans overcome some of their queasiness about approving a program so closely tied to President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

The panel was joined Tuesday by Republican Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville, who voted in favor of Insure Tennessee last year, and Democratic Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said he was concerned that the governor's proposal wouldn't have allowed for the program to pause and take stock of growing enrollment.

Hill said his preference would be to "roll it out in phases, keep in measurable and most important keep it measureable, with circuit-breakers and stuff, so that we can keep control."

"Instead of, 'Plop, here's the 280,000 to 300,000 people, and good luck,'" he said.

Rep. Steve McManus, R-Memphis, said in speaking with a colleague in another state that had expanded Medicaid, he was told he was "not so sure we can just walk away" if the program didn't meet expectations.

TennCare Director Darin Gordon, a chief architect of the Insure Tennessee proposal, said he was "absolutely" convinced that the state would be able to end the program whenever it sees fit.

"A state could chose not to renew it," he said. "You can't be forced to renew it."

Gordon cited the removal of 170,000 people from the TennCare roles in 2005 to halt escalating cost for the program.

But Hill, who served in the Legislature at the time, said that was an experience he doesn't want to repeat.

"It was very awful," he said.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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