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Opponents: TennCare Work Requirement Could Cost in Long Run

TennCare recipients could be required to work in order to receive medical benefits, under bills in committee this week at the Tennessee Legislature. (Subconsci Productions/Flickr)
TennCare recipients could be required to work in order to receive medical benefits, under bills in committee this week at the Tennessee Legislature. (Subconsci Productions/Flickr)
March 14, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The idea of requiring TennCare recipients to work in order to receive benefits might sound like a reasonable proposal on its face.

But opponents say there's a catch to the legislation, House Bill 1551, and its companion, Senate Bill 1728, sponsored respectively by Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield.

The legislation, in committee in both chambers this week, calls for able-bodied adults to work. But according to analysis by the Tennessee Justice Center, out of nearly 1.5 million TennCare enrollees, only about 3,700 would likely be terminated from the program under the stipulation.

Gordon Bonnyman, Tennessee Justice Center staff attorney, added it might save the state $11 million, but would cost an estimated $50 million to enforce.

"It sounds like a good concept, but there's good reason why over 50 years, we haven't done it before – because it doesn't really work," said Bonnyman. "It's really a solution in search of a problem, and it's a very expensive solution."

Put another way, he explained, the state would spend about $10,000 to remove a person from the TennCare program.

Supporters of the legislation – including Rep. Harwell, who is a Republican gubernatorial candidate – say the requirement is intended to lift people out of poverty. But Bonnyman noted that a large majority of people who qualify for TennCare are unable to work because of a disability, or obligations to care for family.

Late last summer, the Tennessee Comptroller's Office launched an investigation into allegations that TennCare recipients were mistakenly being removed from the program.

According to Bonnyman, that resulted in a lack of trust of the state agency's ability to handle additional paperwork and procedures. He called it "the really big thing that worries most of us who have looked into it."

"We don't mind people working; most people want to work who are on the program," he said. "The problem is, the state does not have a good track record in administering complicated requirements."

He also pointed out that TennCare enrollees must fill out a 98-page renewal form when applying for coverage, including 17 pages of personal and financial information.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN