And because 66 percent of Tennesseans support Medicaid expansion, according to a 2018 Vanderbilt poll, Dean hopes those numbers will translate into votes once polls open in November.
In his first visit to Washington County since defeating state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh in the May Democratic primary, Dean emphasized his support for Medicaid expansion on Thursday while talking to supporters at a town hall event at Carver Park.
“I think it’s an issue that most Tennesseans are for Medicaid expansion. Most Tennesseans understand that issue now. They understand how our state has been hurt since we didn’t do it, and how the other 34 states that have done it have benefited from it,” Dean said.
“We have lost $4 billion that could have been used to give insurance to folks and access to healthcare. We had 11 rural hospitals close, and we’ve got to do better than that. What I’d like to see is a reasonable, pragmatic discussion about how we answer the healthcare issues, how we move our state forward, and I think Medicaid expansion is a part of that.”
Currently, Tennessee residents are only eligible for TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, if they are elderly, disabled, pregnant, caring for minor children or uninsurable.
Approximately 80 percent of people insured by TennCare are disabled or over the age of 65. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 163,000 Tennessee residents fall into the “coverage gap,” meaning they do not quality for TennCare and are also ineligible for premium subsidies through the health insurance marketplace.
Dean also discussed how Medicaid expansion could help address the state’s opioid epidemic, which led to 1,268 Tennesseans dying from an overdose in 2017.
Dean referenced Virginia’s Addiction and Recovery Treatment Services program as a model Tennessee could follow. That program expands access to residential treatment for all Medicaid members, creates new care models combining medication with counseling and offers training and financial incentives to increase provider participation.
“Addiction is a health issue,” Dean said. “And when someone suffering from addiction lacks access to health insurance, their ability to get the treatment they need is extremely limited. Simply put, expanding Medicaid will save lives. The opioid crisis in our state is wrecking families and entire communities, and we have a moral obligation to make it stop.”
The good news, according to Dean, is it’s not too late for Tennessee to expand Medicaid, once again referencing Virginia as an example. Virginia lawmakers voted in May to expand insurance to 400,000 of their residents.
Lee, who defeated Randy Boyd, Diane Black and Beth Harwell in a tightly contested Republican gubernatorial primary, has said he does not believe Medicaid expansion is the answer.
“Federal dollars with strings attached is not free money, and expanding a government program without first addressing rising costs is not the right approach for our state,” Lee told the Johnson City Press in July.
“Instead, we should be working with the administration to address the rising costs in our existing TennCare program, and supporting the provider community to help patients make the right choices to address the rising rate of preventable lifestyle diseases.”
During a question-and-answer session with the audience, Dean said would continue to support same-sex marriage and access to medical marijuana.
However, an awkward silence fell over the crowd when Dean was asked whether he would change Tennessee’s Right to Work law, which currently prohibits the use of union membership status as a condition for getting or keeping a job.
“I don’t see that changing,” Dean said.
“I’m not going to say I’m running for governor to change that. I don’t see that happening. I’m going to treat both sides fairly. I think the role of government is not to interfere if there is a labor dispute. That’s to be worked out between the private parties. I would certainly work and talk with the unions. I think they have an important role to play in representing workers.”
Dean rounded out his day in Northeast Tennessee by visiting the Watauga River Lodge to discuss the state’s outdoor recreation industry.
“There is so much more the state can be doing to promote the outdoor economy in upper East Tennessee,” Dean said. “Focusing our efforts will not only attract outdoor enthusiasts from all over to visit but to make this their home. We don’t have to sacrifice our conservation efforts for growth. To me, the two go hand-in-hand.”