Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday that he's talked with nine Republican governors who have expanded Medicaid for low-income people in their states, and he plans to announce what he will do by the end of the month.
Haslam has been heavily criticized for refusing last year to agree to $1.4 billion in federal funds to cover about 180,000 uninsured Tennesseans under the terms the money was offered.
The Republican governor wrapped up budget hearings Friday, and among the last was TennCare, Tennessee's version of Medicaid. After the TennCare hearing, Haslam told reporters that he talked with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell this week and that he plans to make a decision by Christmas.
Haslam has said he's trying to get federal officials to approve an alternative plan, one that is acceptable both to Washington and to largely skeptical Tennessee lawmakers, who must approve any deal under a law passed earlier this year. He said the GOP states that expanded Medicaid have been part of the conversations with Washington.
"As we're talking with Washington, we're trying to find out, here's what they've proposed, what are you likely to approve here?" Haslam said.
Health care advocates are becoming increasingly frustrated with Haslam's delay, particularly because those nine Republican governors expanded Medicaid and at least three more are in discussions with federal officials.
"Other Republican governors have successfully negotiated deals ... using the federal dollars to fund their plans," said Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, a leading advocate for enrollees in TennCare. "They have shown that it is possible, and that Tennessee should be able to do the same thing."
The nine Republican-governed states that have expanded Medicaid are Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Last week, Wyoming, which has a Republican governor, released a plan to expand Medicaid. The proposal, which still has to win federal and state legislative approval, would provide Medicaid coverage to an additional 17,600 low-income people, according to the state's health department.
Under the plan, those earning 100 to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — for a single person, $11,670 to $16,105 a year — would have to pay monthly premiums. The premiums could range from about $20 to $50 a month, depending on household size and income, according Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Health Department.
She said people earning less than 100 percent of the poverty level would not have to pay monthly premiums. However, they could owe small co-payments for certain services. Deti said those deemed "medically frail" would be enrolled in traditional Medicaid.
"We've proposed a plan that the governor believes to be acceptable," she said.
In Tennessee, a recent Vanderbilt University survey of about 950 registered voters showed 56 percent supported expanding Medicaid coverage.
Health care advocates say the state's youngest citizens are among those who would benefit from an expansion.
Mary Nell Bryan is president of the Children's Hospital Alliance of Tennessee. She said studies show that children are likelier to get access to health care if their parents have it.
"Even if kids are eligible for coverage, their parents are not as likely to take them to a doctor for check-ups and immunizations if the parents are not getting routine health care as well," Bryan said.