Cochran on TennCare reform

By Thomas Wilson

   State Rep. Jerome Cochran said he was pleased with Gov. Phil Bredesen's budget address Monday night that included no increase in taxes for the coming year.
   However, Cochran said he had hoped the governor would make reforming the TennCare program a higher priority given the deficit of $500 million the state is projected to face this year.
   "We have a TennCare problem in this state right now," said Cochran in a telephone interview from Nashville after the governor's speech Monday night.
   "He did say that we are going to have to look at a reduction of benefits, which is a starting point."
   In his first budget presentation to lawmakers, Bredesen said "fundamental changes" would be made in the structure of TennCare later this summer.
   "This will include placing reasonable limits on the use of costly prescription drugs -- one of the biggest reasons for our TennCare overruns," Bredesen told the legislature.
   Bredesen said he and his staff reviewed all necessary items including homeland security initiatives, funding for the Basic Education Plan, and a $27 million "down payment" to help rural school districts address the equity in teacher's pay issue. In all, these items added up to $629 million -- more than half of which will go to TennCare.
   "We cannot address the issue of TennCare funding and overruns unless the federal government loosens up its mandates," said Cochran.
   "I think legislators should look at TennCare in this aspect - if it is such a great program, why aren't other states copying it?"
   Bredesen told the General Assembly that "after doing a realistic estimate of what the state's tax collections will be, approximately $355 million in cuts was needed in order to balance our budget."
   State agencies and departments, the Department of Transportation, and higher education institutions are cutting their budgets by nine percent. Bredesen said the budget would ask local governments to accept a nine percent reduction in tax revenues. Those cuts amount to a $132 million decrease in state appropriations.
   Cochran said he opposed any measure that sliced state shared taxes from cities and counties to balance the state' budget.
   "You can't have it both ways, and you can't balance the state budget on the backs of counties," he said.