By Ronald W. Weathersby
Recently about 70 ministers gathered for a rally on War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, where they said state leaders have a moral obligation to offer TennCare to the 175,000 poor Tennesseans who are not eligible for the program. The event was organized by Clergy for Justice Tennessee.
According to a report published by Families USA 1.7 million Tennesseans or 32.4 percent of the population are uninsured. In the same study 35.7 percent of African-Americans and 63 percent of Latinos in the state are uninsured. However, during a two-year period between 2009 and 2010 whites made up nearly two-thirds of the people in the state without health care. Some critics of the Affordable Care Act of Obamacare say the nation’s poor are being protected by programs designed for them. However, in Tennessee 50.1 percent of poor people are uninsured.
The 1.7 million number is questioned by a more recent report by the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research which says that in the five years from 2005-2010, the number of uninsured Tennesseans rose from 482,353 in 2005 to 604,222 in 2011. More alarming the study said that during that time period 3,483 Tennesseans died because they lacked health insurance.
In spite of these numbers last spring Gov. Bill Haslam (R-TN) announced that he will opt out of Obamacare’s optional expansion of the Medicaid program, which would extend health coverage to an estimated 140,000 uninsured Tennesseans and bring in $1.4 billion in federal funding in the first year. Haslam said he will seek to extend coverage to the expanded population by using federal funding to buy private insurance, thus pumping more money into the hands of one of the state’s largest industries. The governor is thereby holding thousands of Tennesseans’ health care as hostage since he declared that he won’t push for healthcare expansion until the federal government approves his plan.
The Reverend Doctor Judy Cummings, pastor of New Covenant Christian Church in Nashville said Haslam should alter his approach to the situation.
“I think the governor needs to rethink his position and look at the motivation behind his position,” Cummings, who served as a nurse for 25-years said. “He is not just a Republican or Democratic governor he is the governor for all the people of this state. I suggest that he examines this issue from a moral point of view.”
The governor and the Republicans who now control state government have answered the need to bridge the gap between those in need of medical insurance and the unavailability of affordable coverage by holding “health care lotteries” twice a year that allow certain residents to call in for a special application for TennCare. The phone lines are usually flooded, and many people are unable to get through. Ironically, many of those people would probably be eligible for health insurance under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and would no longer have to desperately dial a state number in the hopes of winning an elusive lottery to access the care they need.
Cummings, who says she dislikes the term “Obamacare” says this approach is unconstitutional and the state needs to assist those in need.
“It’s my belief that somehow, someway we should make sure that people are cared for. As a society we should create a system where people can have access to quality and affordable health care. As a society we have a moral responsibility to make sure those people who are uninsured have access.”
She went on to say that many of the arguments against the law including the misnomer that healthcare rates will increase are at best misleading. The law, she explained “actually reduces cost to individuals and the government.”
Her assertions are validated by numerous studies that have shown that as the law is incrementally implemented health care premiums in California, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, New York and Oregon are lower than expected.
Cummings agreed with the Clergy who says access to affordable health care is a moral issue and should not be political.
“Many people who oppose the law like to cite the Biblical verse in which Jesus says the poor will always be among us. He did not say this so that we can ignore them. From a religious perspective the poor’s basic needs should be provided for.”
The Tennessee State University graduate went on to say that health care along with education, housing and employment opportunities were all “quality of life” indicators and, “Our state doesn’t support quality of life.”