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Medicaid, vouchers top Chamber breakfast topics

Madison Mathews • Mar 22, 2013 at 9:11 PM

Medicaid expansion and school vouchers dominated much of the discussion Friday morning as representatives of the state legislature met with local officials and members of the community during a breakfast hosted by the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and representatives of U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander gave updates on several legislative issues ranging from talk of the debt ceiling to health care.

Roe spoke about the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the job market. He said 350,000 jobs a month need to be produced for 36 straight months in order to get the unemployment rate down.

“What’s happened with the Affordable Care Act is, a lot of businesses now are looking at ways now to cut employees (to) less than 30 hours so they don’t have to comply with the Affordable Care Act. ... I think this bill is so incredibly complex and so incredibly expensive to administer. We ought to blow it up and start over again. It goes into full flush come Jan. 1,” Roe said.

Crowe spoke at length about Medicaid expansion, which is something that will be addressed by the General Assembly.

When the Affordable Care Act was introduced, Crowe said hospitals gave up millions of dollars in reimbursements in exchange for those without health insurance to have health coverage.

Hospital officials have come out in support of Medicaid expansion. Without expansion, Crowe said hospitals stand to lose 90,000 jobs statewide and about 9,000 jobs in the region.

Crowe said the expansion of the Medicaid program is a “dilemma” Gov. Bill Haslam is facing.

“The governor’s got that to think about. Those that don’t go into a Medicaid expansion will be taking care of those who fall in between the cracks. ... He’s got to figure out whether to expand and he’s trying to separate the politics from the economics of it,” Crowe said.

Haslam’s proposal to create a school voucher program in the state has been the subject of debate since it was introduced. The plan is to allow children in low-performing schools the chance to go to a private school, with public dollars following those students.

Crowe said the funding would not come from Basic Education Program funding, which would impact systems in Washington County. Instead, Crowe said the funding for systems participating in the program would come from local education agencies.

The voucher program wouldn’t directly affect systems in Washington County since both Washington County and Johnson City schools are some of the highest-performing systems in the state, Crowe said.

“In this case, our school boards and our commissions looked at it again and determined that this is something that we can probably deal with at this point, but the bill that brings it statewide is something we can’t support, I’m being told, because that would affect the educational dollar that we count on 100 percent,” Crowe said.

Van Huss said he supports school choice, but his two major concerns with Haslam’s proposal stem from the funding mechanism and how it affects religious liberties.

Van Huss also briefly addressed a bill he is sponsoring that would restrict police agencies in Tennessee from using unmanned drone aircraft.

“As a representative, it is my responsibility to protect my constituents from criminals and it is my responsibility to protect their personal liberties and their right to privacy, so the drone bill that I have written puts checks and balances on law enforcement — local and state — when and where they can use a drone,” he said.

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