The Tennessee House of Representatives approved a bill on Monday, February 23, stating that Tennesseans can legally ignore the mandate of the federal Affordable Health Care Act (ACA). The ACA mandate states that every American must purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. However, the bill is currently being disputed in federal courts and at the state government level in several states.
SB79, or the Tennessee Health Care Reform Act, was passed 70-27 by the Republican majority; no votes were cast by House Democratic representatives. Since the motion passed, it will now be sent to state Governor Bill Haslam to either approve or veto.
As Gov. Haslam is a Republican and has expressed his disapproval for the ACA in the past, it can be assumed the bill will be approved. This is especially true since the legislation makes good on promises Haslam made during his 2010 election campaign to combat what the Republicans deem as unconstitutional interference in the lives of citizens by the federal government.
A similar bill was defeated in 2010 after being alternately passed by the both the State Senate and State House of Representatives. SB79 is different from the 2010 legislation in the fact that it doesn’t include the key provision that was the death note for the 2010 bill: the requirement that the Tennessee Attorney General must file a suit against the ACA regarding its unconstitutionality.
The debate over SB79 was drawn out for more than an hour, as the Democratic representatives attempted to filibuster by making long speeches and trying to add amendments to the bill. In contrast, the Republicans did not make any speeches, except for the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver.
The Republicans did attempt to stop the debate five times prior to it finally being closed. All four Democratically-proposed amendments to SB79 were killed by votes which adhered strictly to party lines. Rep. Weaver declined discussion of these amendments, on the basis that they were not relevant to the bill’s purposes. “This bill is simply about liberty and freedom of choice,” Weaver said. “Tennesseans do not want the government telling them their business about health care.”
These disputed amendments to SB79 pertained to exclusions and exceptions to the state’s public policy of rejection of the ACA. They included doing away with health insurance coverage limitations in the event of catastrophic injury or disease, allowing children to be covered by their parents’ policies until the age of 26, and getting rid of the “doughnut hole” in Medicare’s prescription drug benefits for senior citizens.
Another proposed amendment, which was defeated 66-32, was presented by House Democratic Caucus Chairman, Mike Turner. His proposal would have the State Legislature declare its support for children with preexisting conditions to be covered by health insurance. “Vote against this amendment and you vote against children,” stated Rep. Turner. “The eyes of Tennessee are upon you.”
Many House Democrats criticized the bill, claiming that it would allow those who could actually afford to pay for insurance to be “irresponsible.” They stated that other citizens would be left with higher premiums and government costs would be driven up by having to foot the bill, should those who refuse the mandatory coverage become seriously ill or injured. One Democrat, Rep. Joe Armstrong, even called such people, “deadbeats.”