Hilleary: Fixing TennCare can fix budget woes

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Fix TennCare and Tennessee's budget problems could be solved, according to gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, R-4th.
   "We need to decide if we want to be number one in TennCare or number one in education," said Hilleary, who appeared at the Washington County Republican Women's monthly luncheon in Johnson City on Monday.
   The four-term congressman said the program needed to reduce provider reimbursements to make them comparable with other state Medicaid plans.
   He also said redefining the program's definition of uninsurable TennCare recipients, insuring applicants who are not legally eligible to receive TennCare, do not get accepted into the program.
   "Over the past four years, TennCare spending has gone through the roof," he said.
   Hilleary displayed charts that he said indicated TennCare's rise in funding during the past four years and the state's strong "state-generated" revenues. He also said the state Legislature's pro-income tax lobby was using the national recession as a tool to hype the state's lagging sales tax revenues from 2001.
   Gov. Don Sundquist announced a new five-year waiver for the program on May 31.
   He also proposed a repackaged TennCare program with three new program products: TennCare Medicaid for Tennesseans eligible for Medicaid; TennCare Standard for uninsured Tennessee residents who do not have access to group health insurance, and are not eligible for Medicaid; and TennCare Assist, recommended by the Commission on the Future of TennCare to assist low-income families.
   "It is a good step, but it is only a first step," said Hilleary of the program's restructuring.
   He said the national economic recession had caused budget shortfalls for several states. He pointed out the commonwealth of Virginia facing a $1.2 billion deficit expectation for the 2002-2004 fiscal cycle earlier this year.
   However, Hilleary said he did not feel a proposed flat tax on personal income was the correct method to increase state funding.
   "It's not because it's the right conservative Republican thing to say. It's because I think (an income tax) destroys jobs," he said. "Once it goes in, it doesn't stay low or flat."
   He added that the state wielded a significant economic advantage over neighboring states such as Virginia and North Carolina by not having a personal income tax.
   Hilleary also said he favored an audit of state government to maximize efficiency and find ways to make government operate more effectively.
   A member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Hilleary said he would push to increase funding for the state's public education system.
   "The only way to get us ahead in this state is to change the way we educate children in this state," said Hilleary, whose wife Meredith was an elementary school teacher for several years before coming to work for her husband's campaign full time. "If we can fix the problem in K-12 education, we can lower spending in higher education for remedial programs."