- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - GOP lawmakers on Thursday for the first time presented details of a more limited approach to Medicaid expansion than was envisioned by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s failed Insure Tennessee proposal.

Members of a task force appointed by Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell said the 3-Star Health proposal would first focus on extending coverage to uninsured people with behavioral health problems and to veterans. The program would include health savings accounts, incentives for healthy living and penalties for improper use of emergencies.

Republican Rep. Cameron Sexton of Crossville said the task force has presented its plan to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services but acknowledged that no other state has been approved for a similar approach.

“We’re looking for a measured approach, where we can have a phased-in approach to work toward closing the gap,” he said.

The proposal would also need the approval of the GOP-controlled Legislature, which rejected Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal to extend coverage to 280,000 people amid fears that it was too closely linked to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Sexton said it’s not yet certain how much the task force’s proposal would cost, or how many people it would cover.

“We hope to have a better idea of that when we get closer to knowing if this direction is OK with CMS,” he said.

The state has estimated that up to 114,000 people with behavioral health issues could be eligible for coverage, while up to about 25,000 uninsured could qualify.

State Democrats have criticized Harwell for not getting behind the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal. They suggest her efforts to create a new proposal are a charade to deflect political pressure.

Michele Johnson, executive director of the health care advocacy group Tennessee Justice Center, said the new proposal “it is more conservative than we would have wanted, but it is a constructive path to closing the coverage gap.”

Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, said the group of lawmakers made the case to federal officials in Washington that a new approach may appeal to the other states that have so far opted out of Medicaid expansion.

“We are the reddest of red states, and there are 19 states that have not done this expansion,” he said. “Let us be a test case, and if it works for us the other 19 might jump on board because the see the benefit.”

Rep. Caren Camper of Memphis is the lone Democratic member of the task force.

“Obviously I had some difference with my fellow members in terms of I want full Insure Tennessee,” she said. “But we knew that wasn’t possible.

“So we did step back for a moment and think about what is politically wise, and what is policy wise?”

Camper said she’s hoping there may be a “third option” if the federal government doesn’t agree with the approach offered by the task force. She declined to say what other options might be considered.

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