Two national legal advocacy groups have joined a Tennessee organization to "closely monitor" how TennCare responds to federal demands that it fix a series of problems in its new application process that have resulted in backlogs and long delays for people trying to get coverage.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group, and the National Health Law Program, a nonprofit that litigates at the state and federal level, have been working with the Nashville-based Tennessee Justice Center, a public policy and advocacy group, to assess a series of TennCare problems and to collect the stories of Tennesseans struggling to get coverage.
Michele Johnson, director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said today that a potential lawsuit against TennCare would be a "last resort" if Tennessee does not work quickly to address longstanding problems that have created a backlog of applications and long delays for eligible people seeking Medicaid coverage from the state program.
The TJC has not brought a major lawsuit against the state since 1998.
"We need the state to take seriously the management failures that are resulting in the suffering of hundreds of Tennesseeans," Johnson said. "Our phone lines have been flooded with real, vulnerable Tennesseans who are struggling because the state has not been following the law."
The federal letter stated that Tennessee has failed to meet all but one of seven federal requirements to get a new eligibility system up and running under the Affordable Care Act.
Delays to this process, including the completion of a $35 million computer system, has meant people wanting to apply for a variety of TennCare programs - mostly the elderly, children and babies - have only been able to apply for coverage through through HealthCare.gov.
Additionally, in-person assistance was been removed from the application process Jan. 1. Since then hundreds of people reporting that they never receive word whether or not their applications have been accepted. Some TennCare-eligible newborns have remained uncovered for as long as six months.
The June 27 letter from federal officials demanded Tennessee submit a plan of action for correcting its problems by this upcoming Monday. The letter cited that Tennessee had "repeatedly expressed reluctance" to enact fixes required by the law.
But TennCare officials have said that they disagree with "numerous aspects" of the federal ultimatum, and plan to issue a more detailed response Monday.
In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the three law groups said that the federal government's letter to TennCare was "an important step toward ending the systemic failures that are causing severe harm to the state's most vulnerable citizens."
"Many low-income people - particularly women, babies and the elderly - are suffering because they are denied access to basic, necessary medical care as a result of Tennessee's broken promise," the statement reads. "Tennessee is the only state with such severe transgressions."
The three groups states that the state has refused their "urgent requests" that it enact the reforms required by the federal government.
"We will be watching closely to see how those responsible respond to this challenge," the statement reads.
For more information, read Friday's Times Free Press.