- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tempers flared Wednesday on a Senate committee debating the fate of Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, a member of the Senate Health Committee, was angered when Democratic committee member Jeff Yarbro of Nashville issued a challenge to lawmakers who oppose the Republican governor’s Insure Tennessee plan: “Offer some type of suggestion about what the governor’s plan should be to actually allow us to accomplish this.”

“Sen. Yarbro, I’ve heard you twice kind of take a slap at some of us, and I’m getting a little bit resentful of it,” Gardenhire said.

Yarbro - the only Democrat on the committee - apologized, and said he meant no disrespect.

The exchange, however, reflected the mounting tension in both legislative chambers as lawmakers decide whether to pass the plan. The Senate Health Committee was expected to vote first on the plan later Wednesday.

“Let’s … digest all this material, and consider your vote as to how this plan will affect the health of Tennesseans,” committee chairman Rusty Crowe said Wednesday before breaking for lunch. The Johnson City Republican supports the plan.

Haslam spent 21 months negotiating with federal officials for a special deal for Tennessee that included market-based elements like vouchers to buy private insurance, co-pays and assurances that the state could pull out of the deal if it ended up being more expensive than expected.

Hospitals pledged to cover the $74 million state share, meaning taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook to pay for extra health insurance costs. But opponents of the Insure Tennessee proposal objected to adding to the federal debt by having the state draw down $2.8 billion in federal money under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

However, supporters of the plan say they’re comfortable with the accountability measures the governor has included, and that the proposal is needed to help those Tennesseans in dire need of health coverage.

Nurse practitioner Cathy Hill-McKinney of Troy said her conservative Republican beliefs have not influenced her support for the plan. She said a cancer patient she cared for - who couldn’t afford treatment and eventually died - could have utilized the governor’s plan.

“I wish you would at least give it a shot,” said Hill-McKinney. “We’ve got an opportunity to do something really good.”

If the plan fails in the Senate, it’s unlikely that the House will move forward with its version of the proposal.

However, House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday that she has offered to have her committee chairmen draw up alternate suggestions for Haslam should his plan appear to be headed for defeat.

Harwell said her colleagues are not yet convinced that the plan will reverse the Medicaid drain on state finances.

“Whether you view that as enough to reduce costs is a real issue the General Assembly is struggling with right now, and there are plenty of people who don’t believe that would significantly reduce costs,” she said.

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