|Healthcare activists hold a banner that reads “Close the Coverage Gap” reminding state legislators that 280,000 Tennesseans remain uninsured and struggle to get healthcare. They were displaying the banners. Photo by Theresa Laurence|
As Tennessee lawmakers drove toward the end of the 2016 legislative session, one of the last things they saw was a group of healthcare activists donned in bright purple “Insure Tennessee Now” T-shirts, holding a banner that read “280,000 Tennesseans still uninsured; Close the coverage gap.”
The group was comprised primarily of Tennessee Justice Center and Tennessee Health Care Campaign members, along with their supporters. “The idea is to be the last thing the legislators see as they leave for home,” said TJC field organizer Katie Alexander. “We want them to know we’re serious about this. … This is something that matters to all Tennesseans, and it’s so vital to people who are suffering.”
The Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, which represents the state’s three bishops on public policy matters, has long supported healthcare access as a right for all people. Jennifer Murphy, executive director of the CPPC, closely watched legislators’ handling of the issue this session, and criticized their lack of action on it. “One of the biggest disappointments in this legislative body is that they have not done anything for people who fall in this gap and cannot afford healthcare,” she said.
Murphy and other supporters of healthcare reform were cautiously optimistic that the “3 Star Healthy Project” task force announced by House Speaker Beth Harwell towards the end of the session would come up with some real solutions. “I hope it’s going to be something concrete and that the thousands who need help will get it,” Murphy said.
‘No legitimate response’
Even though legislators are wrapping up the 2016 session, organizations like the Tennessee Justice Center, a non-profit law firm that helps low-income families gain access to healthcare, and the Tennessee Health Care Campaign, a healthcare advocacy group, are pressing on with efforts to help those left in the “coverage gap” without access to healthcare.
The “coverage gap,” as it is known, is the term used to describe Tennesseans who have no access to health care coverage. They don’t qualify for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program; they don’t make enough money to qualify for subsidies through the Affordable Care Act; they are too young for Medicare; or they aren’t offered, or can’t afford, insurance through their job.
Tennessee Justice Center Executive Director Michele Johnson called Harwell’s April 12 announcement of the task force “forward progress, but far from perfect.”
Johnson is concerned that legislators lack the sense of urgency that her clients deal with every day regarding access to healthcare. “People have real problems and all (the legislators’) answers have to do with politics,” said Johnson, a parishioner at Christ the King Church. “To me, they’ve given no legitimate response to the people.”
Tennessee Justice Center client and Maryville, Tennessee, resident Alicia Coffman, who is caught in the coverage gap and suffers from intense chronic pain due to a genetic disorder, cannot get the care she needs without insurance. The legislators, she said, “act like health care is a luxury and it shouldn’t be.”
Coffman, who has seen a variety of doctors and made several trips to the emergency room in the last few years, all with disappointing results, has been unable to connect with a specialist who might be able to treat her. “I think I would’ve been treated a lot different if I had insurance,” she said.
In tears as she talks about the pain she must cope with every day, Coffman is frustrated with Tennessee lawmakers who have, for years, failed to come up with a solution to increase health care access for some of the state’s most vulnerable people. “I want them to look me in the eye and tell me why I don’t deserve help,” she said. “It don’t make any sense to me.”
Murphy, of the Catholic Public Policy Commission, calls Harwell’s task force “a wait and see political game.” She noted that the four members of the task force are all Republican representatives, with no Democrats or senators among them. Few details have been given about the task force, but Murphy did say, “It’s a step in the right direction.”
State to sue over refugees
In addition to health care, Murphy and the CPPC also kept a close eye on a number of other issues of interest to Catholics during the legislative session. The CPPC and its allies who work with refugees and immigrants were unsuccessful in their efforts to defeat SJR 467, a resolution that authorizes Tennessee to sue the federal government over the state’s refugee resettlement program.
Fueled by a fear of terrorists infiltrating through the refugee resettlement program, the bill’s sponsors framed the resolution as a state’s rights issue, claiming that the federal government is sending refugees to Tennessee without its consent, and that the state does not receive enough information about refugees coming here.
Proponents of SJR 467 claim that the federal government is forcing the state to pick up the tab for state services utilized by refugees, such as TennCare and English language instruction, which amounts to an “unfunded mandate.”
A fiscal review committee report produced several years ago at the request of legislators, however, found that refugees contribute significantly more to the state economy than they receive in benefits.
The Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, has been administering Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program since 2008, after state officials determined they did not have the administrative capacity to run it.
“Catholic Charities does a fabulous job running the program,” Murphy said. They will continue doing their job of welcoming and assimilating refugees in Tennessee as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts, she added.
This legislative session was filled with more lows than highs for Murphy, who was also “very, very disappointed that we were unable to pass a school choice bill.” The bill, HB 1049, would have provided “opportunity scholarships,” or vouchers, for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and who are zoned or attend a school that is in the lowest 5 percent in academic achievement. The scholarships could have been used in private schools, including Catholic schools, that met academic requirements set by the Tennessee Department of Education.
Although the bill was killed earlier in the session, Murphy said it could come up again in the future. “Sometimes it takes many, many years before something passes.” The failure of the bill “really speaks more to the current political environment than the merit of the bill.”
A few victories
Murphy did count a few victories from this session, including the defeat of the HB 1660, the “fetal assault bill,” which would have allowed for prosecution of a woman who uses illegal drugs while pregnant. “At first glance, you might think the fetal assault bill is good, but it’s not,” Murphy said, because it unjustly punishes women who are struggling with addiction and do not have access to rehabilitation services. “This is a serious situation, but it can be addressed in a better way,” Murphy said, such as expanding drug courts in the state and providing more funding for rehabilitation centers.
Murphy also hailed the passage HB 2377, which requires the preservation of biological evidence in all capital cases. This bill is important, she said, because death sentences have been overturned based on DNA evidence.
The Catholic Public Policy Commission did not weigh in on some of the most controversial issues of the legislative session that garnered national media attention, including the “transgender bathroom bill,” or the effort to make the Bible the state book of Tennessee. Both of those measures ultimately failed.
While Murphy is still digesting the 2016 legislative session, she is hopeful that next year’s will have “more positive bi-partisan legislation and leadership.”
She reminds all Tennesseans that state elections are coming up. “If you don’t like what’s going on, change it. Let your voice be heard and vote.”