State Democrats host rural healthcare event in Hamblen County

Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini speaks at the Stand for Rural Healthcare rally at the Hamblen County Courthouse in Morristown on Tuesday.

The push for healthcare reform in Tennessee made a stop in Morristown on Tuesday.

Democrats from all over East Tennessee joined the state Democratic Party at the Hamblen County Courthouse to make a push for Medicare expansion, especially in the rural areas of the state, as part of an eight-county tour.

“We’ve been to six stops already. Yesterday, we went to Marion County and McMinn County,” said Trevon Sylvester, Tennessee Democratic Party communications director. “Tennessee’s rural hospital closures have had a disproportionate effect on the rural areas of Tennessee.”

Mary Mancini, chair of the state Democratic Party, said Republicans have neglected rural areas of the state, adding the closing of rural hospitals is an example of a two-tier system of healthcare: those who make money – and those who cannot. According to a report from Tennessee Democrats, 21.4% percent of Morristown residents have no health insurance, more than twice the national average.

Thirty-seven states have expanded Medicare. Tennessee is one of the 13 that still hasn’t accepted the expansion money. Former governor Bill Haslam attempted to accept the funds, but was shut down by fellow Republicans in the General Assembly.

“There is $6 billion in Medicare the legislature has left on the table purely for political reasons,” she said. “Those dollars could keep these hospitals open.”

Sylvester said lack of access to healthcare has created a dire situation, and the state’s inability to provide for these residents, especially women, is unacceptable.

“Right now, this generation of women will be the first to die in childbirth before their mothers,” he said. “We want more access for these women to go to an OB-GYN.

“This is happening unnecessarily because Tennessee will not expand Medicare.”

Mancini challenged local elected officials to spend time with their constituents to learn about their health care struggles and how it affects other areas of the county.

Income levels in Hamblen County are below state and national averages, according to the United States Census Bureau. While the median income is $57,000 nationally, Morristown’s median income is $25,000 below the national average at $33,000, forcing residents to move elsewhere to find sustainable income.

The Census Bureau also reported Hamblen County’s poverty and disability rates are higher than the state and national averages with education levels near the bottom. Tennessee Democrats say there is a distinct correlation between these factors and healthcare.

“(Eldridge and Southerland) live here, but they don’t get out in the community and talk to people who don’t have health insurance or have to choose between food and healthcare,” Mancini said. “They have great healthcare paid for by the taxpayers. They need to get out of Nashville – and talk to seniors.

“Tennessee Democrats say you have a right to your roots. No one should have to leave their home to find a good job.”

With an increase in opioid deaths over the last year, as well as mortality rates rising in rural areas, Tennessee Democrats continue to look for solutions – and they believe Medicare expansion is a major step toward solving the problem.

“No one should lose a loved one because of lack of timely treatment. No one should lose a loved one because they couldn’t find a doctor,” Mancini said. “No one should lose a loved one because of opioid addiction.”

At the Community Healthcare Roundtable, held shortly after the rally, Tennessee Democrats once again made a push for healthcare reform, as well as presented ideas to get more people involved.

“(The lack of access to healthcare) is predominantly among the loaw-income and elderly residents. Healthcare is complicated now because it’s profit-driven,” said Darrell Key, chairman of the Greene County Democratic Party. “I think you have to just keep talking. You have to put a face to the dilemma. You have to change the conversation.”

Ethan Cruze, a healthcare advocate from Bean Station, told the town hall Democrats have to overcome decades of rhetoric propagandized by Republicans to change people’s minds about healthcare, especially in the rural areas of East Tennessee.

“If it changes one person at a time, it’s worth it. (Republicans) have been successful in diving us. The language has to be inclusive,” he said. “They say ‘I don’t pay taxes going to (the poor).’ The poor will say in return ‘I don’t want to mooch off the government.’

“We need to change the conversation from ‘us and them,’ to ‘us and we.’”

Mancini added the recent town halls held by Gov. Bill Lee and Republican members of the General Assembly need to provide real and tangible solutions for the state’s healthcare problem – and Democrats are willing to work on bipartisan legislation to fix the problem.

“They’re holding roundtables, but the time for collecting data is done,” she said. “We want action, not just words, records and studies.

“We are willing to work with Republicans to solve the problem.”