The Waiting Room: 530,000 Tennesseans wait to see what will happen to their health insurance

Jan 11 2017
Posted by: Staff
The Waiting Room: 530,000 Tennesseans wait to see what will happen to their health insurance

By: Amelia Ferrell Knisely

“Obamacare saved my life,” said Paula Hurt, a 63-year-old Chattanooga resident who is battling cancer.

In 2011, Hurt went into emergency surgery unsure what was causing symptoms including pain, asthma, hormonal issues and insomnia. The problems had caused her to leave her career as a mortgage broker. She came out of the surgery with a diagnosis: neuroendocrine cancer.

When she entered the hospital for surgery, Hurt was insured under COBRA, but her plan was canceled during her lengthy hospital stay while she was hooked up to a ventilator.

“Imagine to lay there and learn your insurance had been cancelled,” Hurt said. “It was a bad sit- uation.”

She and her husband signed up for a plan under Blue Cross Blue Shield with a pricetag of $2,200 a month with a $6,000 deductible.

“Not only was it breaking our bank account, but the insurance didn’t even cover the chemotherapy,” she said.

Then, President Obama’s signature health care law went into effect.

“The ACA (Affordable Care Act) was a godsend,” Hurt said. She found a policy that covered what she needed – including chemotherapy – for $580 a month. “With active cancer and chemo shots that cost as much as $18,000 a month, affordable coverage is essential."

“I spent 117 days in the hospital and had 15 surgeries. I literally thanked God for it.”

Hurt’s story is featured in a new campaign launched by the Tennessee Justice Center (TJC), a non-profit law firm, to showcase Tennesseans benefitting from TennCare or The Marketplace – and illuminate the negative outcomes if ACA is repealed without a replacement plan in place.

Repealing Obamacare could leave more than 530,000 Tennesseans without health insurance, according to TJC Executive Director Michelle Johnson. Those with and without coverage are now watching to see what President-elect Donald Trump – who campaigned on the promise of repealing the ACA early in his term and replacing it with an alternative – will do and what a Republican-crafted replacement plan will look like.

Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced a resolution last week that would repeal much of Obama’s health care law. It would phase out the provisions over several years – giving lawmakers time to come up with their replacement plan for the 20 million previously uninsured Americans who gained health coverage through Obamacare.

Johnson admits that Obamacare isn’t perfect, but feels concerned that so few people in Tennessee realize what’s at stake if ACA is repealed without a functional alternative in place.

“Life and death is at stake because of this complicated health care system we have in America,” she said, calling the repeal a “50 to 60 year jump backwards” in getting people health care coverage.

Johnson is also calling on Tennessee’s state elected officials to extend health care to an estimat- ed 280,000 Tennesseans who remain uninsured – or in the coverage gap, as TJC calls it. The coverage gap consists of Tennesseans between 18-65 who do not fit into a category for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and do not make enough money to get financial help to buy insurance on the Marketplace through Obamacare. More than half of those in the coverage gap are employed, with the largest percentage working in the food service and construction industries.

Tennessee lawmakers in 2015 blocked Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal – dubbed Insure Tennessee – that would have extended health coverage to thou- sands of low-income Tennesseans. Lawmakers said the governor could not accept a funding expansion for Medicaid under provisions of the ACA; Haslam told reporters that the expansion’s tie to Obama played a part in the legislation’s death.

The legislature wrapped up its session last year without any action on the health insurance coverage gap. State House Speaker Beth Harwell last April launched the “3-Star Healthy Task Force,” aimed at improving TennCare. The group of lawmakers held a listening tour throughout the state, then in June proposed its own TennCare expansion plan.

State lawmakers return to work Jan. 10, and will join Tennesseans in waiting for the rollout of a Republican alternative to Obamacare.

“Are they really interested in solving problems, or playing politics? We’ll see if they’re going to play games or do an end zone dance because they didn’t like the president,” Johnson said.

Johnson is urging Tennesseans to write letters to their Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker – both of whom have voiced concern for repealing Obamacare without a replacement plan in place. Alexander’s concern should carry weight; he’s the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and will have a hand in crafting the repeal bill.

Johnson said they’ll post information on TJC’s Facebook page about letter-writing campaigns and other ways to get involved with the organization’s #ProtectOurCare campaign. She also encouraged Tennesseans to reach out to their neighbors and discuss the pending changes to health care.

“It’s not impolite to talk about this. The failure to talk about it puts all of us at risk from a moral and economic perspective,” she said.

“Unless you engage with your elected officials and demand that they lead and govern, everything – whether private insurance, Medicare or Affordable Care subsidies – (is) what’s at stake.” 

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