Friday, October 24, 2014 · 2:46 p.m.
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The Tennessee Capitol. (Photo: Staff)

Tennessee won't expand its Medicaid program under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, if Sen. Todd Gardenhire has anything to do with it.

Gardenhire, who was elected to his first term representing Senate District 10 last November, is a co-sponsor of a bill that would prohibit the expansion of TennCare, the state's Medicaid program—before Gov. Bill Haslam will even have a chance to announce his position on the matter. 

The proposal, introduced by 31st District Sen. Brian Kelsey, already has 16 co-sponsors, leaving it one shy of the total needed to clear the Senate. 

A House companion bill has 15 co-sponsors, according to a Knoxville News Sentinel report

By opting to expand TennCare rolls to include Tennesseans at 138 percent of poverty, the federal government would pay 100 percent of expansion costs for the first three years. After that, the funding would reduce to 90 percent. 

In an interview with Nooga.com Monday, Gardenhire said he thought it would be best to bar Tennessee from aligning with the option provided by the health law because he feared federal administrators may change the funding structure years down the road, potentially leaving Tennesseans with the threat of higher taxes.

"We've seen nothing in the past that indicates the federal government is able to keep their promise in upholding these costs down the road," Gardenhire said. "It's a terribly expensive program, and while well-meaning, it could take money from other services we need to fund here in Tennessee."

The senator said he had not looked into any effects that not expanding TennCare could have to state hospitals, particularly in rural areas. In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Bill Haslam said he was sympathetic to hospitals that might struggle without an expansion being implemented. 

"Most of us in this room don't like the Affordable Care Act, but the decision to expand Medicaid isn't as basic as saying, 'No Obamacare, no expansion," Haslam said.

Sen. Bo Watson, who represents Senate District 11, said that although he did not favor the idea of expanding Medicaid, he was waiting on further information from state agencies before making a decision on whether to support a proposal.

"At present time, I don't support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act," Watson said in a phone interview. "However, I'm waiting for additional information from the administration and TennCare regarding what the implications are of expanding or not expanding."

Regardless of what the lawmakers' positions may be, legislative action on the issue may not be likely in this year's session. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is also Senate speaker, has said a vote on the measure is unlikely for this session because of Haslam's request to study the issue. 

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