U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn issued a warning to her Senate counterparts who are introducing massive health reform bills this week: Learn from Tennessee’s experiment into “nationalized” health care.

“All approaches for a nationalized health care system simply don’t work, and we saw this with TennCare,” Blackburn said this week during a discussion on the future of employer-based health coverage at The Heritage Foundation.

In 1995, the state implemented TennCare, a health program modeled after Medicaid. While it covered more uninsured adults, the budget-busting program grew at a 1.5-percent annual rate, with costs skyrocketing from $2.5 billion in 1995 to $8 billion by 2004, Blackburn said.

“This program started to consume every new dollar that was generated in the state,” Blackburn said. Additionally, Tennessee residents who already had private health insurance were dropping their plans to get on the free health program, she said. “We started hearing stories of individuals trying to buy ‘uninsurable’ letters so they could get on TennCare.”

By 2005, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen cut 170,000 adults from the program and reduced benefits for thousands more to get a handle on the soaring costs. “Our experience with trying to do universal coverage ended up being a disaster,” he recently told the AP.

All of these issues could be repeated on a much larger scale if Congress passes through legislation this summer that would put more of the health care decision-making power in Washington, Blackburn said. “People know that the health care system is not working as it should and certainly the government has a role in helping the sector become more cost-effective and cost-efficient.”

But the solution is where Congress is finding a deep divide. One group of lawmakers is pushing for government to take a far greater role in the health care system through mechanisms like a public health insurance plan. Another group has proposed patient-centered approaches, such as changing the tax structure of health benefits so that more families and individuals could purchase affordable health insurance they would own.

As Congress moves rapidly on this issue, Blackburn stressed that policymakers should focus on incentives for businesses and workers to buy health insurance, rather than punishing employers into providing or subsidizing health benefits.

“We need to have a collaborative effort and find common ground on things we agree on in health care reform. You also have to include market forces and keep any reform on a patient-centered focus.”