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Tennessee needs Medicaid expansion now

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Medicaid expansion is one of the most important issues to face the Tennessee General Assembly in more than 20 years. This decision will affect the lives nearly a quarter of a million working men and women in Tennessee, and now is the time to make a decision -- one that is based on people, not politics.

Here are the facts: If we expand our Medicaid program, hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans -- will receive quality, affordable health care coverage. Tens of thousands of these individuals are children and veterans, many of them our neighbors from the National Guard who don’t qualify for full V.A. benefits.

Every week when I get back to my district, I hear from working middle-class families whose jobs don’t provide health care and who make too little to afford real coverage on their own. Medicaid expansion offers an opportunity to expand coverage to these working families who live between 100-138 percent of the poverty line -- or about $31,000 a year for a family of four.

Expanding Medicaid also makes financial sense. About 15 percent of the Tennessee economy is dependent upon the health care sector. Without Medicaid expansion, dozens of hospitals are in danger of closing, meaning our state could lose thousands of jobs over the next ten years.

Drilling down deeper, we know that Tennessee currently ranks near the bottom in women’s health and infant mortality. Medicaid expansion offers a meaningful opportunity to address both these important issues.

We know that the key to a healthy baby is a healthy mother. Unfortunately, our current system ignores the needs of working class mothers, who many times don’t qualify for Medicaid coverage until they are pregnant. Medicaid expansion would extend quality health care to women before they become pregnant, meaning a healthier pregnancy and healthier baby.

It should be no surprise that Tennesseans have already made up their mind on this issue. A recent survey showed that 59 percent of Tennesseans believe we should expand the Medicaid program, while only 35 percent expressed reservations about such a move. This is because Tennesseans understand what is at stake.

They know that expanding Medicaid will help working families, women and children. They also know it will reduce the amount of uncompensated care hospitals provide, which will ultimately bring insurance premiums down for everyone -- including those of us with employer provided or privately purchased coverage.

The good news is that it’s not too late for Governor Haslam to do the right thing. Tennessee Democrats know that Governor Haslam can negotiate with the federal government on Medicaid expansion. That’s why we offered budget amendments that would allow the Governor to accept federal funds for expansion, if and only if the conditions for his hybrid plan were met by the Department of Health and Human Services.

I understand there’s political pressure on Governor Haslam from the far right wing of his party. While putting this decision off may be politically popular, we owe it to the least among us to put people above all else and do the right thing.  Lives depend upon it.

Joe Armstrong represents the 15th district in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He is the Democratic Caucus Vice-Chairman, and President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.