Although I've never been there, I can imagine that somewhere inside Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's office is a picture. I envision it as a photo of a bright, ambitious, and idealistic Emory University college student proudly standing next to former iconic Tennessee U.S. Senator Howard Baker. It would have been taken when Haslam volunteered to work on Baker's reelection campaign in the 1970s. I can further imagine Haslam worshipped the man whose colleagues dubbed him "The Great Conciliator" for his uncanny ability to politically maneuver diverse factions into seeking workable compromises for the benefit of the common man, because it was the right thing to do.
In a previous column, I, like many others, scoffed at Haslam's 21-month attempt to work with the federal government to craft an expanded health insurance plan tailored for Tennessee. I criticized him for what I perceived as his foot-dragging to aid the 280,000 Tennesseans who fall through the cracks of Medicaid and are left unable to pay for simple medical care or are victimized by the ravages of a catastrophic illness. I will admit I should not have been so quick to judge his intentions or his determined strategy at devising a workable proposal.
But as we found out last week, even the best of intentions seems to carry no weight with the current Tennessee General Assembly. To have Haslam's well-thought-out Insure Tennessee plan fail to even get out of a Senate committee is an abomination, especially for anyone still deluded enough to think our elected officials are chosen to do the will of the people.
The majority of Tennesseans favored taking the available $2.8 billion in federal dollars over two years to finance the program. Using the inclusive vision practiced by his political mentor, Baker, Haslam methodically garnered the support of the state's medical associations, bankers, businessmen, and law firms. He had fact-based rebuttals for any questions about the validity of the plan, including the trump card of it being a "pilot" program that could be dropped after two years of enactment. But, once again, sinister forces within and outside Tennessee's borders used their financial and political influence among state legislators to defeat the proposal, mainly by invoking the conservative rallying cry of Obamacare.
Haslam appears to have thrown in the towel on pushing any further efforts toward passing Insure Tennessee. He was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying, "At the end of the day, I'm really disappointed that 280,000 people who could have had health-care coverage, at least right now, it doesn't look like we have a path to get them there. That's the end result to me." To which I say:
Governor, look at that picture of you and Baker and ask yourself: "Why does this have to be the end of your plan? If one path is closed off then try another."
You admitted you hammered out the final approval to go forward from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services in December, and then announced it in the first week of January. You then went on a whirlwind tour of the state, with a stopover in Memphis. It seemed more like a victory lap, as if the heavy legislative lifting had already been done. Yet, you didn't have vocal support from key legislators — House Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris — and only lip service from Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey.
A parade in Nashville of highly paid hospital administrators endorsing the plan doesn't carry anywhere near the emotional impact of real people bringing their personal stories directly to the faces of legislators.
It's time to cash in on your solid state-wide popularity. You didn't give yourself enough lead time to drum up support. People like you. Use the bully pulpit of your office to energize your message; force legislators to listen. Then go summon that Baker voodoo for bringing opposing sides together and work out a compromise.
Governor, to breathe life back into this proposal, you're going to have to roll up your sleeves and do something you've previously chosen to avoid: getting down in the trenches and fighting for the good of all Tennesseans. You can begin by convincing yourself that it's the right thing to do. Look again at that picture of Baker, and maybe you'll find the inspiration and courage to do it.