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As Legislature Begins, Backers Rally for TennCare Expansion

When the Tennessee General Assembly begins on Tuesday, lawmakers can expect to see demonstrators with placards, photos and prayers asking them to expand TennCare. (Tennessee Justice Center)
When the Tennessee General Assembly begins on Tuesday, lawmakers can expect to see demonstrators with placards, photos and prayers asking them to expand TennCare. (Tennessee Justice Center)
January 7, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee is one of 18 states that has not expanded its Medicaid program, known as TennCare, but backers of the idea are hoping for a change in the new General Assembly.

Tennessee's attorney general was one of 20 in the United States to file the lawsuit that a federal judge in Texas recently decided in their favor, declaring key parts of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional.

But Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, says the ruling doesn't reflect the wishes of many Tennesseeans.

"Health care is the number one priority for Tennessee voters,” she points out. “We're hoping to give folks an opportunity to let their elected officials know what they expect of them. This involves not just expansion of Medicaid, but also pre-existing conditions protections that are at risk because of the attorney general's involvement in the Texas lawsuit."

A rally of expansion supporters begins Monday at 11:30 a.m. at the McKendree United Methodist Church in Nashville.

The state's uninsured rate of 6.7 percent has climbed for two years, and it's estimated that more than 300,000 people would qualify if TennCare was expanded.

But some legislators say that would be costly and short-sighted.

Tammy Bain is one of those who'll share her story at the rally.

Bain has been unable to work due to a leg amputation last year. She lost her health insurance and says her TennCare application has been denied multiple times, leaving her unable to afford a new socket for her prosthetic leg.

She wants lawmakers to hear her predicament and others.

"Just to bring to the attention to the disabled that are unable to get TennCare,” Bain states. “There's so much need for their medical problems to be addressed, and it seems like we're just forgotten – paid into the system and unable to get the insurance that we need to take care of ourselves."

The federal government's 90 percent share of TennCare expansion would top $1 billion.

Expanding TennCare could cover most uninsured residents, but its only pathway is through a Republican-dominated legislature that has rejected it so far.

However, Johnson sees hope for bipartisan support this year.

"We're hoping that this new legislature and new governor can roll up their sleeves and solve problems – not as Republicans or Democrats, but as leaders," she stresses.

For the first time in the history of Vanderbilt University's public policy poll, Tennessee voters say health care should be the chief priority for state government, ahead of the economy or education.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - TN