Gov. Bill Haslam
ASHLAND CITY, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he sees no link between the state’s approach toward the new health insurance exchange that goes live Tuesday and his ongoing efforts to negotiate a special deal for Tennessee for Medicaid expansion.
The governor told The Associated Press after a factory tour in Ashland City last week that the state isn’t trying to establish any roadblocks to the exchange after having deferred to the federal government to run the insurance marketplace.
Health care advocates disagree, arguing in a lawsuit filed Friday that emergency rules enacted through the state Department of Commerce and Insurance to require background checks for people giving advice on the exchanges are too broad and have a chilling effect on people trying to help others obtain health insurance.
The lawsuit was filed Friday on behalf of the League of Women Voters and several individuals by the Tennessee Justice Center.
A Haslam spokesman declined to comment, citing pending litigation. But the governor said before the lawsuit was filed that the background checks are a way to prevent scams and identity theft in a process that involves divulging personal information. The administration isn’t trying to hinder people signing up for insurance through the exchange, he said.
“We’re 100 percent not,” Haslam said. “There’s no way at all that Commerce and Insurance is attempting to obstruct enrolment — that’s one of the things they want to make certain happens.
“But they also feel there has to be a need to make certain that citizens aren’t taken advantage of in the process,” he said.
The governor said he has noticed no increased federal scrutiny of the way the exchanges play out in Tennessee as the state tries to hammer out a special deal on obtaining $1.4 billion in Medicaid funding available to the state under the health care overhaul.
“I think the federal administration’s interest obviously is getting as many people signed up as they can,” he said. “But I haven’t noticed any extra oversight for us.”
The new state insurance markets for individuals who don’t have coverage on the job open Tuesday. The markets are meant to offer a consumer-friendly way to buy health insurance while forcing insurers to compete for business.
Consumers can apply online, through a call center, in person, or through the mail. Average premiums released last week placed Tennessee’s rates near the cheapest among the 36 federally-run exchanges.
Sticker-price premiums for a midrange benchmark plan will average $245 a month in Tennessee, well below the national monthly average of $328. Only Minnesota’s average premiums are cheaper, at $192 per month.
Premiums under the cheapest plan offered in Tennessee would average $181 per month, the third-lowest rate in the country. Those premiums don’t include subsides or tax credits aimed making the insurance more affordable for low-wage workers.
Critics such as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have argued that the exchanges will make insurance more expensive by eliminating bare-bones plans that can cost as little as $41 per month for a 27-year-old man in Memphis, or $58 for a woman of the same age in Nashville.
“This isn’t what President Obama promised Tennesseans, but it’s what he’s giving them — higher costs and less choice — two of the most urgent reasons Obamacare must be repealed and our health care system fixed,” Alexander said in a statement last week.
Michele Johnson, the executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said her organization has firsthand experience with people struggling to find health insurance coverage and that they often quoted exorbitant rates as high as $600 per month.
She said even the low premiums in Alexander’s scenario don’t tell the whole story.
“When you look behind that, it was a plan that had $7,500 deductible, which doesn’t work for most people in our state,” Johnson said. “That would bankrupt a lot of families, or cause financial devastation.”
“You can get cheaper insurance, but you can’t get cheaper real coverage,” she said.