NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — House Democratic leaders said Tuesday that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's decision not to expand Medicaid in Tennessee eclipses his signature plan to cover tuition at two-year colleges.
The Democrats held a news conference to discuss the recent legislative session.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said Haslam's legislation to create a program that would cover tuition at two-year colleges for any high school graduate could have been his legacy, but "I think it's going to be overshadowed by ... not expanding Medicaid."
Called "Tennessee Promise," the legislation is a cornerstone of Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign to improve the state's graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.
However, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley agreed that the governor's inaction to expand Medicaid took attention away from his free tuition plan this session.
"I think the overall disappointment was the lack of the majority taking seriously the Medicaid expansion issue," he said. "It was just sort of a flippant disregard ... in what we had the opportunity to do."
Haslam last year declined to accept the Medicaid money without special arrangements for the state.
During a visit to Nashville last month, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said the state is losing out on $6.2 million a day in federal funds.
She said 520,000 uninsured Tennesseans would qualify for expanded Medicaid, and taxpayers and hospitals are currently footing the bill for their care.
"We could have used some creative ways to move that money around," Fitzhugh said Tuesday.
The state estimates that 181,700 Tennesseans would qualify for expanded Medicaid.
Haslam met with Sebelius twice during a visit to Washington in February and ended up asking her to make a counterproposal to Tennessee's call for using the federal money to subsidize private insurance and promote healthier lifestyles through a series of incentives.
Last week, the governor signed legislation lawmakers passed this session that prohibits him from making a decision about Medicaid expansion "unless authorized by joint resolution of the General Assembly."