While some leaders like Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon were being proactive in closing businesses and issuing stay at home orders Gov. Bill Lee diddled around for weeks. The centerpiece of his anti-coronavirus program was to ask local officeholders to pray for our deliverance.
Lord knows I’ve been saying “God Help Us” quite often these days.
Lee waited until March 30 to close non-essential businesses and then waited until last Thursday to issue a stay at home order. Knoxville, which has a charter form of government, allowed Kincannon the authority to act. She began issuing executive orders two weeks before and County Mayor Glenn Jacobs issued an order closing non-essential businesses a few days later. Most counties had no authority to do anything except beg the governor to take action.
Lee now predicts a surge in cases by the end of the month. That would be cases of people infected while they were out running around the last two weeks while the governor delayed action.
The delay in dealing with the pandemic ranks up there with the last short-sighted decision to put ideology ahead of health care in Tennessee. The legislature refused to expand Medicaid which would have provided insurance for thousands of the working poor who make too much money for TennCare (Medicaid) but not enough to afford private insurance. The expansion may have allowed many rural hospitals to survive. Hospital beds which may be badly needed before this crisis is passed. Knoxville is bracing for the influx of patients from the region and is looking for additional hospital beds. The state has allowed billions of dollars to go to other states rather than insure Tennesseans.
The reason the state has turned down badly needed health care funds? Legislators closed their eyes, put their fingers in their ears and recited their mantra: Obamacare! Obamacare! Obamacare!
So, our health care system may be inundated with virus patients with no insurance. It could shake the foundations of our healthy hospitals. Knoxville’s state Sen. Richard Briggs, who is a doctor, has a bill down at the legislature that would expand TennCare. It has been ignored, as have previous efforts to take the money. The legislature goes back in session June 1. The bill could be quickly approved. It won’t be because, well, Obamacare! Obamacare! Obamacare!
There is also the problem that Lee has his own bill and his own plan. Which no other state has or is ever likely to have, including Tennessee. It is a proposal for a block grant to the state which depends on the state to administer it. Considering the way Lee has handled this health crisis, do we really want him to reinvent TennCare?
The state’s record in managing federal pass through programs is not good. Let’s recall that the Beacon Center discovered $700 million, meant to help the poor get a job, stashed in a fund. And the state comptroller found a federal program being paid for with state funds and the federal funds were turned back.
So here we are. Large numbers of the working poor – the people most likely to not be able to work from home and more at risk – taking up hospital beds with no TennCare to reimburse the hospitals. Convention centers are being surveyed to provide hospital beds for an overflow, when existing hospitals around the state have been closed due to a lack of TennCare reimbursements. And the rookie governor continues to let ideology prevent his taking decisive action.
(Tennessee is not alone. Margaret Renkl wrote an excellent column in the Sunday New York Times pointing out that Tennessee’s governor joins Republican governors across the South in delayed stay at home orders and also how the failure to expand Medicaid in these states has closed needed hospitals and is harming efforts to combat the pandemic. I would recommend her piece to you, a Perfect Storm is Gathering.)
Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.