April 10, 2015
For the second time in two months, Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee program to extend health insurance coverage to as many as 280,000 of the state’s working poor died in a committee of the Tennessee General Assembly.
The bill, along with proposals on school vouchers, payday lending reforms, changes to the refugee resettlement program in the state, and changes to the adoption rules, was one of the main pieces of legislation the Catholic Public Policy Commission, representing the state’s three bishops, was following and lobbying during this year’s legislative session.
During a special called session to consider the Insure Tennessee plan in February, the program was voted down by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. Supporters made some changes to the proposal and brought it back during the regular session of the General Assembly.
But once again, the bill failed when the Senate Commerce Committee voted it down 2-6-1, with little discussion.
“That is a real strong no in your face,” said Jennifer Murphy, director of the Catholic Public Policy Commission. “I just don’t think the votes are there. Please let me be wrong. I want to be wrong.”
Insure Tennessee would have extended health insurance coverage to people who are caught in Tennessee’s “coverage gap,” unable to qualify for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, or for subsidies to purchase insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.
Despite assurances that no state tax money would be spent on the program and that the state could opt out at any time, most legislators were reluctant to support the program and seem suspicious of participating in the federal health care program championed by President Barack Obama.
“There’s a lot of push back from the Tea Party,” Murphy said. “I think it’s really sad. Maybe something will change next year.”
The failure of the program will affect thousands of Tennesseans with serious illnesses who don’t have health insurance, Murphy said. “We’re talking about people with cancer.”
Some of the state’s smaller hospitals in rural areas also would have benefitted from the Insure Tennessee program and will face increasing financial pressure without it, Murphy said.
If rural hospitals start to close, it will have a domino effect on the economies in the communities they serve, Murphy said. Not only would a rural community lose jobs if its hospital closes, but it will be even harder to recruit new businesses to the area without a hospital, she said.
Murphy is hopeful a bill to establish a school voucher program that would use state funds to pay the tuition for students in failing schools to attend private schools will pass.
The bill was passed by the Senate and is scheduled to be considered by a subcommittee of the House Finance Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, April 15.
“Right now it could be a 50-50 vote,” Murphy said. “If we can not get past that committee it’s over for the year. And we can start over next year.”
Under the bill, the program would be open to students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and attend a public school ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools in overall achievement. The number of vouchers would be capped at 5,000 the first year and increase to 20,000 after four years.
The participating private schools will determine how many voucher students to accept and which students to accept, Murphy said. And the students will have to participate in religion classes and school liturgies just like the rest of the student body, she added. “The way this is written, we keep our Catholic identity.”
It will be up to individual Catholic schools to decide whether to participate, Murphy said. “In no way is it going to hurt our Catholic schools,” she said.
The Catholic Public Policy Commission also has been following bills addressing the payday lending industry, the refugee resettlement program and adoption regulations.
A bill to cap the amount of interest and fees charged for a payday loan at 28 percent per year has been pulled for this year, Murphy said. Currently, the cap on interest and fees is 375 percent a year.
“That’s an issue we care a great deal about,” Murphy said.
Payday loans can have a severe impact on low income families, she said. “Their business model is for you not to pay your loan off but to keep rolling it over and over. Every time you redo your loan there’s a fee. They just trap you.”
The payday loan industry has 60 lobbyists working to defeat the bill, and Murphy is the only lobbyist working for its passage, she said. “I’m going to be looking for some people to coalition with me,” Murphy said, and she plans to meet with Rep. Darren Jernigan, the bill’s sponsor, over the summer to discuss how they can move the bill forward next year.
The Catholic Public Policy Commission has been following closely bills that would require the State Department of Human Services to apply to manage the U.S. State Department’s refugee resettlement program in Tennessee.
The state used to manage the program but opted out several years ago, and the federal government contracted with Catholic Charities of Tennessee to run the program, Murphy explained.
The ultimate goal of the sponsors of the bills, both of which have been withdrawn for this year and will likely resurface next year, Murphy said, is “to have more say so over how many refugees can come into the state.”
“They believe refugees are a drain on the economy,” Murphy said, even though several studies conducted for the state have concluded that refugees, who find jobs quickly, often start businesses, and typically don’t receive government assistance for an extended period, are actually good for the state’s economy.
A bill that reduces the time a birth mother has to change her mind about giving up her baby for adoption from 10 days to three days has passed both houses of the General Assembly and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Originally, the bill would have completely eliminated the window for the birth mother to reconsider, but it was amended to three days, Murphy explained.
The Catholic Public Policy Commission, representing the interests of several Catholic agencies that have adoption programs, opposed eliminating the time a birth mother could reconsider, Murphy said. “Let’s not disregard the mother.”
Murphy expects the pace of action in the Legislature to pick up in the coming weeks as legislators try to adjourn for the year before the end of April.