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HealthConnections: 2024 Legislative Update


This week on HealthConnections, a look at issues that may arise during the next Tennessee General Assembly. Dr. Carole Myers, a professor emeritus in the University of Tennessee College of Nursing, talks with state senator and physician, Dr. Richard Briggs, about medicaid expansion, gun control and mental health. Today's episode is part 1 of the conversation. 

WUOT’s Carole Myers: Senator Briggs, unexpectedly there is an effort to restore the governor’s authority to pursue medicaid expansion. Tennessee is one of only ten states that has not expanded medicaid and there are estimates that medicaid expansion would provide federal funding to provide coverage for up to 300,000 Tennesseans, although the numbers generally are lower, more like 180,000. Why not and does this initiative have legs?

Richard Briggs. I don’t know if it will have legs or not, but there has, since Governor Haslam proposed Insure Tennessee in 2015, there has been a pretty big turnover in the assembly since then and I believe that the interest that we are seeing even among republican voters, which blocked it in the past, shows now that 60 to 65 percent of republican voters now are even in favor of this. It’s a tremendous loss in revenue that comes into the state. When Governor Haslam brought it up, it was about one to $1.2 billion that we were leaving on the table in Washington and now it is up to $2 billion. Tennessee has had more rural hospitals per capita close than any state in the country. We have a lot of uninsured citizens and many of these are your working poor who don’t qualify for TennCare. So it is time now I think to bring it back up. Now this doesn’t mean that we are going to do it, it just means that we are going to give the governor the authority to do it.

Do we have any sense that the governor has any inclination around expanding medicaid?

Well, Governor Lee now will be starting his fifth year in office. When he ran for reelection even last year we didn’t get any indication that he would be interested. Whether it is Governor Lee or the next governor or whoever is the governor at that time, we want to return that authority to the governor to be able to make application with CMS to expand medicaid.

In response to the Covenant school shooting, Governor Lee convened a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly in 2023. The main topics of conversation were gun safety and mental health. By my assessment, little was accomplished. Can we expect to see some movement on either of these topics during the next general assembly?

I think we will see some bills filed. The complaint that I heard during the special session is we just didn’t have time to properly consider the bills, we didn’t have time to call in local and national experts to testify. The bigger question is will we pass any meaningful gun control legislation?

So let’s also look at mental health. Senator Briggs, do you have any hope that we will be able to address the issues that center on access and a large part of that has to do with having an adequate workforce in places where people need assistance?

I think the way that we will be approaching mental health will be a very bright spot because mental health issues are something that both the democrats and republicans, the conservatives and the liberals, really are agreeing on. We’re seeing problems in our schools. We’re seeing increase suicide rates. Much of the gun violence that we see seems to be related to mental health also. It is difficult because we don’t have mental health personnel to take care of all of these folks and especially in the rural areas it is very difficult to recruit psychiatrists and nurse practitioners with specialties in psychiatric care and we have challenges there. But, it is something that I think we recognize as a legislature. It is a very serious problem and it is something that we can agree on from both sides of the aisle that we need to do something about.

This transcript has been lightly edited for content.

Greg joined WUOT in 2007, first as operations director and now as assistant director/director of programming. His duties range from analyzing audience data to helping clear WUOT’s satellite dish of snow and ice. Greg started in public radio in 2000 in Shreveport, La., at Red River Radio and was, prior to coming WUOT, at WYSO in Dayton, Ohio, where he also was director of programming and operations.