Tennessee's Medicaid Deal Dodges A Partisan Fight An agreement between the Tennessee Hospital Association and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam expands Medicaid without tax dollars, an agreement that could be a blueprint for other states.

Tennessee's Medicaid Deal Dodges A Partisan Fight

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Tennessee is testing a new way to pay for expanded Medicaid. Republican governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee recently struck a unique deal with the state's hospital association. The group agreed to help pay for making Medicaid available to more people. As Bobby Allyn of member station WPLN explains, the deal has paved the way for wider GOP support for Medicaid expansion.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Tony Smith's disability check puts him over the income limit to receive standard Medicaid, but it's too little for him to qualify for a subsidy. Sitting next to a federal healthcare navigator at a Nashville clinic, he said he hopes lawmakers think of his plight and that of thousands of others when considering Medicaid expansion.

TONY SMITH: I'm not looking for a handout; I'm just looking for some help. You help me. That's all I'm asking you to do is to help me because I need it.

ALLYN: Expanding Medicaid, until recently, has been seen as a political poison pill in Tennessee. That's until the hospital lobby stepped up and opened their wallet. They saw no other choice.

CRAIG BECKER: We basically left over $800 million on the table of federal dollars, which is a lot of money that could've done a lot of different things.

ALLYN: That's Craig Becker, who heads Tennessee's Hospital Association. He's referring to the state turning away new Medicaid money the past year.

BECKER: Look. We're stressed. Each individual hospital has gone to us, and said we're going to have to lay people off. We've seen layoffs here. We've seen hospitals close. And they're saying we're not just crying wolf here.

ALLYN: The association will pay for the state's contribution under the deal, taking state taxpayers off the hook. It's not the first time the hospital group has helped finance the state's Medicaid program.

BECKER: I've heard from several of my counterparts, and they have all said the same thing - that they're really hopeful that perhaps their states will follow the lead of Tennessee. Tennessee Senate leader, Ron Ramsey, who once fiercely opposed Medicaid expansion, now says it's a, quote, opportunity that must be taken seriously. Governor Haslam now heads the Republican Governors Association. It might be up to him to reassure other state leaders that accepting federal Medicaid money doesn't have to trigger a bitter partisan fight. John Graves studies healthcare at Vanderbilt University. He says other states have sought Affordable Care Act waivers, but Tennessee's approach stands out.

JOHN GRAVES: So I think the state kind of views itself as an innovator. And they want to create a program that's amenable to, not only the governor, but the legislature that could create something with their own kind of Tennessee spin on it.

ALLYN: Whether that spin will be enough to satisfy the state's Republican supermajority won't be known until lawmakers reconvene in January. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Nashville.

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