By AARP Tennessee State President Cleo Owens

Photo courtesy of Wenonah Pinn

Photo courtesy of Wenonah Pinn

Like many Tennesseans, I was disappointed that Gov. Bill Haslam said he would not include Medicaid expansion in his budget for next year.

But I took heart in the fact that he left the door open – with his “Tennessee Plan’’ - to leverage the dollars authorized through the Affordable Care Act to provide insurance for thousands of hard-working Tennesseans. He says our state has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly have health care reform.”

He may be right.

In recent days, the federal government has issued guidance that appears to give our governor what he needs to implement the framework of his “Tennessee Plan.”

That includes his proposal to purchase commercial coverage through the soon-to-be-created health exchange, use the Medicaid match (no more than 10 percent from the state) and reform the way providers are paid to reward quality care and outcomes. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already said that states could opt out of expansion, as called for in the governor’s “circuit breaker” provision.

There certainly are some details that still need to be worked out and some compromises to be made. Gov. Haslam has been talking with federal officials at the highest level to try to move forward with his plan. AARP also has reached out to contacts at CMS in hopes of bringing all the parties together.

The governor has expressed confidence that the Tennessee Plan could be implemented, and that there would be “shame on us” if we didn’t pursue it.

I agree. And we need to act quickly.

This is a critical issue for Tennesseans – including more than 77,000 between the ages of 50 and 64 – who are uninsured. Many of these folks have been struck down time and time again, losing their jobs and their health care while struggling to feed their families during this economic upheaval.

These are folks whose hard work has helped build Tennessee. They are not looking for a handout. They just need a hand.

And helping them would help us.

 A recent report by researchers from the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee found that expanding Medicaid to cover people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (which is less than $32,000 for a family of four) would be good for the health of Tennessee’s citizens, communities and state economy.

It would mean an estimated 22,000 new jobs, more than $577 million in local and state tax revenue and result in $30 for every $1 spent by the state, according to the report.  It also would mean healthier workers, healthier children and healthier families. That would create a more productive workforce – and a healthier local and state economy.

We don’t know exactly what the governor’s “Tennessee Plan” would mean. We still haven’t seen all the details.

But we know that doing nothing could be devastating for our citizens and our state. Many of our hospitals would cut services and staff, and some would close altogether. Thousands of people would get sick and die unnecessarily. And our state simply can’t afford that.

Now we want to hear from YOU. Please post your comments in the boxes below, email us at tnaarp@aarp.org or call us at 1-866-295-7274 to share your thoughts.

And be ready. We may need YOUR help. Sign up here to receive our advocacy alerts so that you can learn when it’s time to reach out to the governor on this and other critical issues for older Tennesseans.

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Cleo Owens, a Memphis resident since the age of 3, is the highest ranking volunteer for AARP Tennessee. A former senior manager with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, he is passionate about helping Tennesseans live healthier and more financially secure lives.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance on March 29.

 The Economics of Medicaid Expansion for Tennessee under the Affordable Care Act (commissioned by AARP on behalf of A Healthy TN and researched by Dr. David Mirvis, John Gnuschke, Jeff Wallace and Cyril Chang).