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Tennessee is 1st to be approved for Medicaid block grant

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has become the first state in the nation to be approved to receive funding in a lump sum for its Medicaid program through a block grant program, Gov. Bill Lee said Friday.

Republicans contend that states need more flexibility to shape their Medicaid programs while also being given the opportunity to rein in spending. Democrats, however, have expressed concern that spending caps might cause states to purge their rolls or reduce services. They instead want to widen Medicaid eligibility.

President-elect Joe Biden has opposed block-grant efforts and can rescind the change.

Addressing concerns about the block-grant model, Steve Smith, director of Tennessee's Medicaid program, said there will be no reduction in services, in eligibility or in the amount paid to providers.

"For the first time, we have an agreement that rewards efficiency," he said on a conference call with reporters. "This is about more, not less."

TennCare, Tennessee's Medicaid program, provides health insurance to approximately 1.5 million low-income Tennesseans, including pregnant women, children, caretaker relatives of dependent children and older adults, and disabled adults.

Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, which represents TennCare recipients, said she thinks the agreement is "bad policy."

"As far as I can see, the agreement gives Tennessee a lot of flexibility to do things that would result in less people covered and less protection for those people who are covered," she said in an interview. "If they don't intend to do that, why seek the flexibility to do it?"

Lee and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma, speaking to reporters on a conference call, said the state's funding would be reduced if the state's baseline enrollment were to drop by more than 1%, so there is no incentive to purge the rolls. Funding can also be increased if enrollment increases by more than 1%, providing a buffer in case of an emergency like the pandemic, Verma said.

Currently, the federal government pays a percentage of each state's Medicaid costs, no matter how much the costs rise in any given year. For Tennessee, that means receiving approximately $7.5 billion in federal money for its $12.1 billion Medicaid program, or 65%.

Republicans argue this system gives states little incentive to keep expenses under control, because no state pays more than half the total cost.

Smith said Tennessee has historically kept expenses low, and as long as the state continues that trend, it will be rewarded under the new agreement. If Tennessee's rate of growth in expenditures is below the national trend, the state will receive a portion of the savings that it can reinvest in health initiatives.

Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, called the agreement "unconscionable." Lacasse said in a news release that the program will weaken Medicaid at a time of increased unemployment amid a public heath crisis and called on the incoming Biden administration to put an end to it.

Asked whether Biden's administration might try to undo the agreement, Verma reiterated her opinion that the new administration should see the 10-year demonstration project through to the end. Verma said the agreement with Tennessee had been carefully vetted and crafted to address criticism. However, she acknowledged that there is a process to terminate such an agreement.

(2) comments


Conservative ideas work and naturally, liberals squirm when they do. Government health care only works when there is strong accountability and Tennessee legislators have been correct in the continuation of policies to control TennCare growth. Liberals are never happy and especially not with status quo spending - they'll never get enough tax payer money, ever. Thanks to former State Rep. Durham, who took on RINO Bill Haslam's state expansion idea (which would have blown up the state's health care program to unsustainable heights), the current state legislature and the Lee Administration can continue to act to keep an account on tax payer dollars. Many other states are dealing with their expansion policies that have resulted in a run-away train of health care expenses as a result. To them I say, stay the course!


What a terrible idea. TN Republicans want the federal government to just give them a big check with zero oversight and accountability. That is what a block grant is. It is the recipe for corruption but then again, that is the TN GOP.

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