HUNTSVILLE — In a town hall meeting here Friday morning, state Sen. Ken Yager indicated a reluctance to support both an expansion of TennCare sought by Democratic President Barack Obama and a school vouchers program sought by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Yager, R-Harriman, spent over an hour fielding questions and addressing concerns of constituents at the Scott County Office Building. Not surprisingly, one of the first questions posed regarded an expansion of TennCare.
More specifically, Scott County Commissioner Sam Lyles asked what refusing to expand TennCare would mean in terms to local hospitals. Lawmakers are expected to soon weigh an expansion of the state's Medicaid program, with concerns on either side of the issue centered around the cost to hospitals and the cost to taxpayers.
The federal Affordable Health Care Act, often dubbed Obamacare, called for an extension of state Medicaid eligibility to include 138 percent of the poverty level as a means of achieving the legislation's lofty goal of extending health care coverage to all Americans. The Supreme Court of the United States has since ruled that states cannot be forced to implement that provision, which calls for the federal government to pay up to 90 percent of the costs for a finite period, after which time the states would assume the lion's share of the financial burden.
Yager admitted that failure to expand the TennCare program would cost Tennessee hospitals some revenue. Anticipating additional revenue due to the Medicaid expansion provision, the American Hospital Association agreed prior to passage of Obamacare to reduced federal funding.
But in echoing comments he made to the Independent Herald last month, Yager said he would listen to both sides of the argument but ultimately did not believe Tennessee could afford to implement a TennCare expansion.
"Local hospitals are caught in the middle of this debate," Yager acknowledged. "(But) my problem with expanding TennCare is the cost to the state. Tennessee is a model to other states, financially, and I am wary of doing anything that will hurt our fiscal standing."
Yager said estimates are that TennCare expansion could cost up to $250 million to implement.
"That would take away from funds that are currently being spent on roads, schools and things of that nature," he said.
A bill to prohibit TennCare expansion has been filed in the state legislature. However, action on the bill is not expected anytime soon, and may not happen this year.
Yager called on the federal government to restore the funding cuts the hospitals association agreed to, saying the full cost of the health care reform legislation is only beginning to be realized.
"The problem is this bill was 2,000 pages," he said. "I don't think people read it before voting on it. Every day we're finding something new in it that will cost the state."
On the other side of the political spectrum, Yager indicated a reluctance to support a school vouchers initiative by Gov. Bill Haslam.
In response to a question posed by Boys & Girls Club of Scott County executive director Hank Hill, Yager said he could not comment directly on the governor's bill, filed only yesterday, because he had not yet read it.
But, he added, he voted against voucher legislation last year because he was uncomfortable with the idea of using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools.
"The bill we voted on last year would allow students of low to moderate income who attend low performing schools to get a voucher for a public or private school of their choice," Yager said. "I don't think we should take public money from public schools. I think there are constitutional issues at play. We're not funding public schools at a high enough level already."
One local issues, the subject of right-of-way purchase for the S.R. 63 widening project was broached by Bob Gray, a pastor at a church in east Huntsville's Little Creek neighborhood. The church is slated to be taken by the state as part of the highway project.
Yager said an exact timeline for the right-of-way purchase could be known when TDOT officials release their annual 3-year schedule in late April or early May.
Other issues addressed by Yager:
Redistricting: On the subject of judicial redistricting, which is being pushed by Republican leaders in the legislature and appears on the verge of adding Anderson County to the 8th Judicial District, Yager cautioned that there is "a lot of misinformation" being circulated. The goal, he said, is to "try to get districts to where there isn't too much shock to the communities — we don't want communities to lose their D.A., and things like that."
Veterans hospital in Harriman: The latest developments in the push to establish a veterans hospital in the former Roane Medical Center building in downtown Harriman are not positive ones, Yager said. Veterans Affairs has rejected a proposal by Harriman officials to establish such a hospital. However, a second proposal by local officials calls for the facility to be used as a retirement home for veterans.
EBT soft drink purchases: On the proliferation of EBT — or Food Stamp — cards being used for bulk purchases of soft drinks that are sold to other retailers at an increased cost, Yager said the activity was likely illegal, the state is aware of it, and it is being looked into.
Department of Children's Services: On the ongoing brouhaha over the Tennessee Department of Children's Services apparent missing records regarding children who have died or have experienced near-fatal injuries while under the state's supervision, Yager said it is "just unimaginable to me that an agency of that size and with that much responsibility could be so inefficient with records." He added that the DCS "historically hasn't been run properly," but cautioned that blame should not fall on case workers, who he said are often over-worked. He called the resignation of Kate O'Day, the DCS commissioner who stepped down under a cloud of scrutiny last week, the "right choice."
Guns: In response to a question from Tennessee Farm Bureau representative John Watson on the subject of the so-called "guns in trunks" legislation passed by the State Senate last week, Yager said there is no provision for private property owners except to offer civil immunity in the event that something goes wrong involving a firearm on their property. The bill allows handgun permit carriers to have guns locked in their vehicles on private property. The aim of the bill is to prevent employers from firing workers with handgun carry permits who carry a gun to their job site and leave it locked in a parked car. In response to a question from Scott County Register of Deeds Benjie Rector regarding 2nd Amendment protections in the face of federal efforts to pass stricter gun laws, Yager said that the state legislature "is very conservative on this issue, on both sides. We aren't going to do anything to undermine (the 2nd Amendment)."