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Harwell touts health care initiative; Dems call it 'charade'
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell on Tuesday touted a new initiative to improve health care access in the state, but Democrats quickly derided it as an election-year "charade" to deflect criticism of lawmakers who rejected the governor's Insure Tennessee proposal.

Harwell said she began talking with health policy experts at Vanderbilt University's medical school to come up with alternatives last year after lawmakers rejected Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Harwell, R-Nashville, has dubbed her initiative the "3-Star Healthy Project," and said it will tap conservative ideas like encouraging greater responsibility for enrollees; create health savings accounts funded by co-payments; and provide more support for people trying to rejoin the workforce.

She is a creating task force to propose ways to improve access to health care in Tennessee. Harwell said the four Republican House members she has appointed to the task force will work to come up with a specific proposal to make to the federal government as early as June, though the plan could require lawmaker approval next year.

Democrats called the announcement an attempt to give Republicans political cover for rejecting Insure Tennessee.

"This is simply designed to give the false impression that the House Republican leadership is willing to do anything about health care," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville. "It's clearly not. This is a charade, it's an effort to delay, and to not simply pass Gov. Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan.

"It's pathetic," Stewart said.

State hospitals had pledged to cover the entire $74 million state share of Haslam's Insure Tennessee proposal, which would have drawn down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid funds over two years.

But Republicans were unconvinced by Haslam administration assurances that the state would have been able to end the program if costs exceeded expectations and many worried about supporting the plan linked to President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

Harwell's panel includes Republican representatives Cameron Sexton of Crossville; Matthew Hill of Jonesborough; Steve McManus of Memphis and Roger Kane of Knoxville.

Kane said Harwell's initiative would seek to put tight controls on enrollment so the state can hold tight reins over costs.

"I was probably one of the most vocal opponents to Insure Tennessee, because there were just no controls implemented, and so it was not fiscally conservative," he said. "It's kind-hearted, but not fiscally conservative."

As Harwell's press conference drew to a close, protesters who support Insure Tennessee were removed from the room by security officers.

The governor, who attended the event, took to the microphone to defend the lawmakers for taking a "political risk" in moving the health care debate forward.

"I don't agree with everything that's been said here — nobody does," Haslam said. "What you have is some folks who are trying to find a solution, and we should encourage that and applaud that.

"If you want to immediately start turning this into a political argument, then we will be back where we were before," he said.