Tennessee Leaders Pass by on the Other Side, Ignore Federal Help as Citizens Suffer

Sam Stockard at Tennessee Lookout reports that Tennessee’s legislative leaders are likely to reject nearly two billion in federal COVID relief funds to help provide health insurance to working Tennessee’s who lack coverage.

Tennessee is likely to reject hundreds of millions of dollars President Joe Biden is offering states to expand Medicaid as part of his $1.3 trillion COVID-19 relief package, even though hundreds of thousands of people remain without healthcare coverage.

Tennessee, one of 12 states holding out on Medicaid expansion since the Affordable Care Act passed, could receive $1.7 billion to provide insurance for the working poor and more money to cover the people already on TennCare, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Reports indicate that between 300,000 and 600,000 Tennesseans would gain access to coverage through the expansion of Medicaid.

Of course, Gov. Bill Lee has consistently opposed expanding Medicaid to help the most vulnerable Tennesseans. Likewise, as Stockard notes, legislative leaders like Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson have also indicated they are not interested in the federal money, and instead want to move forward with a block grant proposal many advocates have said will leave citizens without coverage.

The willingness to leave federal assistance on the table while citizens suffer is nothing new. In 2019, reports surfaced that the state had left more than $700 million in TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — funds unspent.

I also wrote about Lee’s reluctance to take Medicaid expansion money back in 2019 — when Donald Trump was President. So, just to be clear, this is not about partisanship. This is about Lee’s fundamental belief that people don’t need help. More specifically, it is about a fundamental unwillingness to help, even when helping would cost Lee and state taxpayers nothing.

Back in 2019, I wrote about Lee and legislators ignoring those in need of healthcare assistance. I noted the parallels between a popular Christian hymn and the despair felt by Tennesseans simply asking that they not be condemned to a life of poverty simply because they get sick. Here’s more:

Imagine standing next to your fellow church-goer and feeling the hope offered in the comforting words of “Just As I Am.” Imagine further that on the same pew is a Tennessee lawmaker — a lawmaker who has access to generous health benefits and also the ability to ensure everyone in the congregation has access to a basic level of health care.

Since 2015, legislative leaders have been standing in the way of access to health care for 300,000 of their neighbors. Now, we have a Governor who has joined them in resisting the relief so many of our friends need.

As I began to write this piece, I thought about the parable of the Good Samaritan. I thought Lee, McNally, and Johnson (among other legislative leaders) might be compared to the priest or the Levite, both of whom had the means to help, but chose not to do so.

Instead, I now realize the attitude expressed by Lee and others is actually worse. While the priest and Levite would have had to use their own resources to care for the wounded man, Lee and Tennessee would be using federal dollars. They don’t have to spend tax dollars or dip into savings or even spend much time on starting a new program. All they have to do is say yes. Yes, they want to help their fellow Tennesseans get the healthcare they need. Yes, they want to preserve and protect rural hospitals. Yes, they want Tennessee to no longer lead the nation in medical bankruptcies. Yes, they see the needs of their citizens and are taking action and getting the help people need.

They won’t even look at the President, not even when it was Donald Trump, and accept the money that would bring life and hope to as many as 600,000 working Tennesseans. I’m not sure there’s a parable for that.

Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

For more on health policy issues, follow Andy Spears

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN

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