Haslam hoping to make Medicaid expansion decision before legislative session in January

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he's continuing to talk with Washington so he can make a decision about Medicaid expansion in Tennessee before the legislative session starts in January.

Haslam told reporters following a veterans' ceremony that he talked to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell last week, and even brought up the subject when President Barack Obama called him Tuesday night to congratulate him on his election win.

"We continue to have discussions," Haslam said. "We need to have some resolution to this with session starting in a couple of months. We need some answers if we're going to have time to get something done this session."

The Republican governor 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.

He has sought to negotiate a special deal that would allow the state to use the federal money to subsidize private insurance and promote healthier lifestyles through incentives and to create a health provider payment system that stresses rewards for keeping patients healthy through preventative care and management of chronic illnesses.

Haslam reiterated Monday that he wants to find a solution that is acceptable both to Washington and to largely skeptical lawmakers in Tennessee, who must approve any deal under a law passed earlier this year.

"The challenge is still the same, to try to get them to approve something that we can pass here," he said.

Earlier Monday, a group of protesters gathered across from the state Capitol to urge the governor to expand Medicaid. Several members of the group delivered a petition to the governor's office that contained more than 47,000 signatures in support of the expansion.

Larry Drain of Maryville was among those who delivered the petition. The 63-year-old said he and his wife, Linda, have lived separately since the start of the year in order for his wife's income to be low enough to qualify for TennCare, Tennessee's version of Medicaid.

Linda suffers from epilepsy and requires regular medication to manage her condition.

"If TennCare had been expanded, we'd still be living together," said Drain, who's written more than 130 letters to the governor in an attempt to meet with him.

Michele Fardan was also among the protesters. She said her 37-year-old daughter who died in July would likely still be alive if she'd had the insurance to get treatment and prevent blood clots in her lungs that doctors say killed her.

Nevertheless, Fardan believes her daughter's death wasn't in vain.

"I believe all things happen for a reason," she said. "She's representing people who ... need health care."

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