Haslam: State won't get answers on TennCare until after elections

Hank Hayes • Oct 30, 2012 at 9:21 AM

KINGSPORT — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that “two immediate decisions” state lawmakers face next year are whether to expand TennCare and also whether to form a state-run health insurance exchange.

“We haven’t gotten the answers from the federal government. ... They haven’t told us how it will work,” Haslam, a Republican, said of those decisions after addressing about 175 business and government leaders at a Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Both decisions are related to the federal health care reform law — also known as the Affordable Care Act — that could stand intact or be reshaped depending on the November presidential and congressional elections.

TennCare is the state’s $8 billion federally supported Medicaid program for low-income Tennesseans. The health care reform law calls for either the state or federal government to run an exchange creating a new marketplace in health insurance.

Both Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, another Tennessee Republican who was also in town for the chamber luncheon, are backing GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney.

“I hope Romney is elected because that creates more flexibility for state spending,” Alexander said.

Haslam projected a TennCare expansion could cost the state an additional $150 million to $200 million annually. The state currently funds about 35 cents for every dollar spent on medical services for TennCare enrollees.

Over the years, that rising TennCare state investment gets blamed for the growing cost of college tuition in Tennessee.

“We can’t let tuition continue to go up double-digit percent,” Haslam told the chamber luncheon. “We’re going to price out lower- and middle-income students when we need to increase the number of graduates. ... About 23 percent of us (in the state) have a degree. It’s estimated that of the new jobs between now and 2020, 65 percent will require a degree. ... There are not enough people available in health care IT (information technology). We could be as many as 20,000 short there — jobs that are going begging right now in Tennessee.”

Haslam will oversee the TennCare and health insurance exchange decisions with anticipated GOP supermajorities in the state House and Senate starting in 2013.

“I’m not overly concerned about it,” Haslam said of governing with those supermajorities next year. “I think (GOP Lt. Gov.) Ron (Ramsey of Blountville) and (Republican House Speaker) Beth (Harwell of Nashville) are the right kind of leaders for a time like this, and everybody within our own party.”

Haslam also gave the luncheon some “quick pictures” of his life over the last few months, including a business recruiting trip to Japan and travels to New York City to solidify the state’s AAA bond rating.

Haslam credited Alexander with starting a relationship with Japan’s auto industry more than 30 years ago when he was governor.

“We have nearly doubled our nearest competitor all because of the work Lamar had done nearly 30-some years ago...” Haslam said. “(We’ve got) Nissan and now Bridgestone, and I could go on and on with the investment that’s happened. And it’s why leadership matters so much.”

Haslam said the bond rating agencies were concerned about states getting less money from the federal government in coming years.

“I told them we have the third-lowest taxes per capita of any state,” Haslam noted. “If you add up all the local and state taxes — all you pay — we come out third lowest. The only two (states) that beat us were Alaska and South Dakota. ... (Business magazine) Barron’s named us the third-best-managed state in the country.”

Haslam touted the connection between Kingsport’s education and business communities. The chamber of commerce recently moved into offices next to Kingsport City Schools’ central office.

He also shared his talks with a large company looking to move to Tennessee with 2,000 jobs and a corporate headquarters.

“They looked at me and said ‘We’re going to hire mostly Tennesseans, but we are going to bring a certain amount of our executive staff here. What I need you to promise me is that when they come here, their children aren’t going to fall behind in school,’” Haslam said of the talks. “That was a sobering reminder of how critical it is to keep those education reform efforts going.”

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