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Bredesen touts health care plan
May 10, 2006 12:00 am
April 27, 2006 MT. JULIET — Gov. Phil Bredesen spent well over an hour in the West Wilson city Wednesday morning discussing Cover Tennessee, his newest health care proposal that he hopes to see enacted by the end of the legislative session.
The governor had a "roundtable discussion" with nearly 20 local small business owners, all of whom expressed varying levels of interest in Bredesen's plan to make it easier for businesses to offer employee health coverage.
Bredesen stressed his visit was an open forum – one of a number he has had with other small business owners from all across the state in recent days – designed to outline his proposal and solicit feedback from the very Tennesseans it will most directly impact.
"This is intended to be a two-way conversation," Bredesen said Wednesday. "I want to make sure I am actually talking to people who are running small businesses rather than just talking to people in Nashville who are just talking to each other."
With that, the Democratic governor launched into an overview of the small business tier of his Cover Tennessee initiative. Under the plan, the state would join with large health insurers, employers and employees to offer a basic level of coverage to a portion of the roughly 600,000 Tennesseans who lack health insurance.
"I'm not trying to solve every problem in the world," said Bredesen, who explained his intention is to offer minimum health coverage to a "big chunk" of the population at more affordable premiums than currently exist.
"This is not for people who need $250,000 worth of care … It's for people who need help with doctor's visits next month," the governor said.
And participation from small business owners will be vital to get a baseline group of recipients established and therefore launch the program off the ground, he said.
The businessmen and women who were invited to the Mt. Juliet Public Library to hear the governor listened intently, and then fired away with a barrage of questions about the plans ramifications and possible side effects.
Many inquiries centered around the still-uncertain particulars of the plan. Bredesen, who stressed the full details have yet to be ironed out or negotiated with the insurance companies, provided broad-themed answers.
A good deal of questions came in the form of worry over any new health plan turning into "another TennCare."
But Bredesen assuaged those fears by explaining – more than a few times – his initiative is not an entitlement program.
"When compared to TennCare, this is just much more contained insurance," he said.
He also expressed his wishes to have the program start small. A trickle-in approach will also prove helpful, he suggested, in coming years when inevitably elements of the program need tinkering.
"I want to continue evolving this … I very much want to make this easy for businesses to come in and play," the governor said.
The program will be limited in scope initially, which will help it from becoming unmanageable and maintain its ability to remain flexible as the the real world changes, Bredesen said.
"I want to start this thing slowly, rather than just throw the barn doors open," he said. "And we may decide that it doesn't work."
Bredesen also gave the audience ample time to grill him on particulars, and even left the door open to suggestions to scrap the whole idea.
"I really want to know what you think. I mean, do I have to go back to the drawing board?" the governor asked.
The response was a near-consensus "No."
"I think it makes a lot of sense," Hilites Salon owner Teresa Reed told Bredesen.
Reed said she employs a handful of workers, but cannot afford to give them health insurance. Many of her employees receive health benefits through their spouses' plans, she said.
"I think a lot of people want insurance and want to pay for it. Just not $600," Reed said.
After the forum, Bredesen said he was encouraged by the feedback, which he described as "quite comparable" to what he has heard in East and West Tennessee.
"Small business people are very practical and down to earth," the governor said. "They want to know how it's going to work. And I think they understand there's a lot of things that aren't going to be decided on day one. But I thought this was quite comparable."
He said the expression of TennCare fears did not surprise him.
"The issues of 'Don't create another TennCare' are universal," Bredesen said. "But I think what comes through is a genuine desire on a lot of peoples' part to offer something to their employees."
That sentiment was echoed by many in the audience, including Roy Vaden who owns Roy Vaden Pools and Spas in Mt. Juliet.
Vaden, who said he has always tried to offer insurance to his employees, said rising costs have forced him to cut back on coverage in recent years.
"I'm really interested in this because I've always wanted to help anyone I can," Vaden said.
Bredesen is scheduled to continue his "roundtable discussion" tour as the legislature continues to debate his plan.
"We're continuing to do them as we're traveling around the state," Bredesen spokesperson Lydia Lenker said.
Staff Writer Jared Allen can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 15 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.