NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A health care forum Friday illustrated the partisan split in the Tennessee governor’s race over Medicaid expansion, with Democrats ranking it their top priority and Republicans opposing it or espousing other priorities.
The Democrats, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, called for expansion of Tennessee’s Medicaid program, TennCare, to 280,000 more low-income patients. The Republican-led General Assembly killed the plan in 2015.
“Frankly, I think the vote or non-vote on Medicaid expansion was sort of a high point of partisanship, and sort of ideologue politics,” Dean said at the forum where candidates came on stage one at a time to answer questions. “I don’t think that’s what works.”
Both Democrats cited recent closures of rural hospitals in their expansion pitches.
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“It is my opinion, shared by many of my colleagues in the legislature, that an expansion of Medicaid would prevent that,” said Fitzhugh, of Ripley.
Most of the Republicans dismissed the idea of Medicaid expansion, an option under former President Barack Obama’s health care law, as potentially too costly, too government-dependent or both.
House Speaker Beth Harwell noted that TennCare already had to shrink by 170,000 enrollees in 2005 to control costs. Former Sen. Mae Beavers of Mount Juliet said states should be able to freely manage federal money.
Bill Lee, a construction company owner from Franklin, opposed a bigger government program.
“If the government doesn’t engage in a more meaningful way with our faith-based community, with our nonprofit community, with those that are doing the work on the ground much more effectively than the government can do it, we’re not going to really curb what I see as an unsustainable challenge going forward,” Lee said.
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd didn’t take a stance on Medicaid expansion and instead voiced support for the federal government to give states block grants to run health care programs through whatever plan Congress ultimately passes.
Boyd served as the state economic development chief under Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who pushed the plan to expand Medicaid that failed.
“There’s so much that’s not in our control,” said Boyd, who founded a company that makes invisible fences. “We’re waiting for Washington, D.C., and so it’s probably not that useful to speculate on speculation and wondering what they’re going to do there.”
Harwell said the state’s “hands are a little behind our back and tied” until the federal government acts.
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who has registered the highest name ID in recent polling, didn’t participate in the Healthy Tennessee and Lipscomb University forum. The Gallatin Republican candidate tended to congressional votes and the March for Life in Washington on Friday, campaign spokesman Chris Hartline said.
The Republican candidates mostly turned their focus away from possibly growing the TennCare rolls and toward personal responsibility, wellness education, private sector innovation and other topics.
Both the Democrats and Republicans said there needs to be a focus on making healthy choices in a state that ranked 45th in the 2017 health ratings by the United Health Foundation. Boyd pointed out that he ran 537.3 miles (865 kilometers) across the state as he campaigned.
Harwell said small changes can also make a difference.
“Sometimes we have a misconception that to be healthy you’re either a marathon runner or the other opposite, of a couch potato,” said Harwell, a Nashville Republican.
The health discussion also gave way to some personal stories. Beavers said she’s particularly excited about holistic treatments because she’s a cancer survivor.
“We can find some other cures for things besides going through all of the toxic chemotherapy and radiation that I had to go through, that weakens your immune system,” Beavers said.