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Gov. Lee Signs Medicaid Waiver, Despite Stern Opposition

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More than half of Tennessee children receive healthcare through the state's Medicaid program, TennCare. (Adobe Stock)
More than half of Tennessee children receive healthcare through the state's Medicaid program, TennCare. (Adobe Stock)
January 18, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Gov. Bill Lee has signed a resolution authorizing major changes to the state's Medicaid program, TennCare.

Critics warned the move could lead to healthcare cuts and reduced coverage for vulnerable populations.

The Medicaid waiver, greenlighted by the federal government and approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, is the first of its kind in the country, and gives the state more freedom to choose how it uses federal dollars.

Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said in exchange for the flexibility, the state will lose out on billions.

"[This is] the first state in the nation to say to the federal government, 'You give us less accountability, and we'll take less money,'" Johnson lamented.

She added hundreds of patient-advocacy groups, doctors, and nurses opposed the decision. Gov. Lee and supporters say the block grant will allow state leaders to improve health.

More than 1.5 million low-income Tennesseans, including pregnant women, children, and people with disabilities, rely on TennCare.

Johnson believes the block grant leaves the state holding the check for its most vulnerable residents.

She pointed out services like neonatal intensive care or hospice care could be reduced or cut, and that's on top of the increased healthcare burden from COVID-19.

"We're number one in the world at positive COVID cases over the last few weeks," Johnson observed. "Number one in the world, like, we are ground zero for where you wouldn't want to take away accountability if your goal is to have stewardship of taxpayer dollars."

Johnson insisted fewer Medicaid dollars will further harm rural communities already hard-hit by hospital closures. She noted rural COVID patients have had to travel longer distances for emergency care.

"And the hospitals closest to them have closed, and the one after that has closed, and the one after that has closed," Johnson emphasized. "We have huge swaths of the state where there's 'healthcare deserts.'"

The move also will allow TennCare to limit coverage of some prescription drugs. Experts say the Medicaid waiver approval will likely face legal challenges.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - TN