Berke and Johnson: Gov. Bill Lee's TennCare block grant plan is no cure

File photo by C.B. Schmelter / In this July photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks in East Ridge.
File photo by C.B. Schmelter / In this July photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks in East Ridge.

In 2007, while running for office for the first time, I heard from a Marion County man named Terry who told me that his family was having trouble getting quality, affordable health care. He said that was the most important issue to him, and asked me to fight for him.

Today, Tennesseans' health care is under attack, and we need to fight back.

We have seen the problems of health care access for Tennesseans, and Gov. Bill Lee's proposal for a block grant makes it worse, not better.

Already, according to the Census Bureau, there are 675,000 Tennesseans who go to sleep each night without health insurance. More than 20,000 live right here in Chattanooga.

photo Andy Berke / Staff file photo

But it could get worse. Recently, the state of Tennessee submitted a proposal to the federal government to make changes to the TennCare program that they are calling "a modified block grant." This change could have disastrous consequences, cutting benefits and coverage by $2 billion to those who need it most - children, mothers, seniors, veterans and the disabled.

Under Gov. Lee's "modified block grant," the state will continue to get funding from the federal government as membership grows, but if TennCare spends less than the federal government gives it, Tennessee state government can keep half of the extra money. This means that state government, which already provides among the stingiest benefits to the working poor, will have an incentive to cut those benefits even further.

On top of that, the block grant proposal loosens regulations from the federal government, inviting more fraud and waste from insurers.

Earlier this year, the city wrote Gov. Lee about the 200,000 children, including 5,500 children in Hamilton County, who were kicked off of TennCare because of paperwork and administration issues from the state. In 2018, TennCare cut enrollment in our children's health programs by more than 10%, the largest percentage drop in the nation. That left so many without coverage that the number of uninsured Tennesseans is climbing at a rate that is among the worst in the nation. And now the governor is proposing to put more at risk.

The numbers tell the story of how important this is. About 65,770 Hamilton County residents are enrolled in TennCare. Nearly 90% (57,012) are women and children. The remainder are nearly all elderly, blind or have severe disabilities.

The implications of potential cuts, though, go far beyond the effect on our most vulnerable residents. When fewer dollars are paid to doctors and nurses for the care people need, that raises the cost for everyone else and hurts our economy.

photo Michele Johnson / Contributed Photo

There is a real solution, of course. It is Medicaid expansion. Currently, our tax dollars go elsewhere when the federal government could be sending them back to Tennessee to help families, veterans, the working poor and others who are most at risk.

But our state legislature refuses to adopt this common-sense solution to one of the most pressing problems of the day. It is the worst of politics when policies are rejected because of who proposed them, not what they do.

Join us and voice your opposition to the state, and ask the federal government to reject this harmful proposal to Tennessee. A public hearing about Gov. Lee's proposal will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the downtown Public library.

Terry, and others like him, need us to fight now as much as ever.

Andy Berke is the mayor of Chattanooga. Michele Johnson is the executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center.

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