Gov. Bill Haslam urged Congress Thursday morning to adopt a short-term fix to health insurance markets while continuing to work on bringing down medical costs over the long haul, as he joined four other governors at a hearing before a Senate committee.
Appearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, Haslam said Congress has an obligation to pass legislation that would encourage insurers to keep selling plans on exchanges set up through the Affordable Care Act. If not, millions of Americans would lose coverage.
But he added they also have a duty to try to control rising costs — even though doing so would be "difficult politically."
"Can't we all acknowledge that it's just as morally questionable to cover everyone with health insurance and put the bill on a credit card to be paid by our grandchildren and not do everything we can to make health care affordable now?" he asked.
Tennessee's governor was rarely called on during the three-hour hearing. But when he was, it was frequently to talk about what he thinks Congress should do to rein in health providers.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, used the governor as a sounding board.
"What do you suggest that we do to address the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs in this country?" he asked.
Haslam named two ideas: having the Food and Drug Administration approve generic drugs faster and giving the government the power to negotiate prices with drug companies.
"Good," Sanders replied.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander chairs the committee and arranged for the testimony. Haslam and his colleagues — the governors of Utah, Montana, Massachusetts and Colorado — also talked privately with senators before the hearing, meeting with more than 50 senators, in all, while in Washington.
The timing is urgent. Unless Congress acts in the next few weeks, government subsidies that insurers receive to cover high-risk patients could dry up next year. That would probably lead many of them to stop offering coverage through Obamacare.
But Haslam said Congress doesn't have to trigger that crisis in order to fix the health care system.
"Some may say the only way to ensure legislative action on cost and realize real reform is total collapse," Haslam said. "I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking. I think every governor here and those back at home believe we can move to stabilize the market now while we work to take on the issue of health care costs."