In Tennessee, a Medicaid mix-up could land you on a ‘most wanted’ list

Staff File Photo / A homemade TennCare sign is seen on the front desk at the Van Buren County Health Department.

Life was upended for LaShonia Ingram over the past year, and a shadow still follows her around.

Search her name online, and the first result includes the words “fraud” and “most wanted.”

“It was horrible. I couldn’t get a job,” said the 42-year-old mother from Memphis. “All doors were being closed in my face.”

Ingram resorted to selling purses out of her trunk to support her family. She said even DoorDash and Uber wouldn’t allow her to work with a felony charge.

Her alleged crime? Fraud.

The state of Tennessee accused her of living in nearby Horn Lake, Mississippi, while still being enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program, known as TennCare. It all turned out to be a mix-up, but the damage to her reputation and finances was done.

Tennessee is one of the most aggressive states in the nation when it comes to policing possible Medicaid fraud among beneficiaries like Ingram. The state posts the names and photos of people arrested for alleged fraud on a government website and social media. Some even wind up on a so-called “most wanted” list, as if they were dangerous and on the run.

The list is maintained by Tennessee’s Office of Inspector General. The office was launched in 2005 when most of the cases involved drug diversion: People were accused of using TennCare benefits to acquire massive quantities of narcotics to sell on the street. But as federal rules have slowed the illegal prescription drug market, arrests related to Medicaid are instead sweeping up people accused of moving out of state — often within the same community — without canceling their benefits.

Clerical error

Ingram was one of 28 Medicaid beneficiaries in Tennessee charged in 2022, according to Tennessee’s Office of Inspector General. More than a third of them were accused of not being Tennessee residents, with many cases originating in the Memphis area, where some of the suburbs are in Mississippi.

In Ingram’s case, Tennessee announced her arrest in a news release, saying she “eluded” authorities for nearly a year. Ingram said she didn’t have a clue about the charges until she got a ticket for not wearing her seat belt.

“They pulled me over, and they said, ‘You have a felony warrant.’ And I said, ‘quit lying,’” she recalled. “I’ve never been in trouble a day in my life.”

It took $2,000 to bond out of jail and even more to hire an attorney. Not until more than six months later did prosecutors show her the evidence so she could refute the charges and clear her name.

The explanation ended up being pretty straightforward. During the time she was on Tennessee’s Medicaid program and living in Memphis, she filed for divorce from her husband who lived nearby in Mississippi. She said they had been separated for years, but her driver’s license still had the outdated Mississippi address.

After her arrest, Ingram showed her Tennessee lease and electric bills, and the Shelby County district attorney dropped the felony charges.

Provider fraud

Every state has an office to investigate Medicaid fraud committed by doctors and other health care providers because that’s usually where the most money can be recovered. Not as many crack down on patients like Tennessee does.

“We try to apply the law compassionately,” Chad Holman, who leads the TennCare Office of Inspector General, told Nashville Public Radio.

Some other states do have patient-focused units, but they don’t necessarily name the accused publicly. For example, South Carolina keeps them anonymous even after they’ve agreed to reimburse the state.

Holman defends Tennessee’s practice of posting a “most wanted” list for its Medicaid program. He said it's supposed to be a deterrent.

“It’s not to blast anyone or defame anyone,” he said. “It’s to simply take care of the business that’s at hand, hold people accountable and do what we’re here to do.”

As drug-related cases have diminished, enforcement has increasingly focused on ensuring that people enrolled in TennCare live in the state. In Memphis, 20 of the 27 Medicaid fraud cases since 2019 involved questions of state residency, according to the Shelby County district attorney. And prosecutors have dropped at least a half dozen of those cases because the evidence was weak.

Holman said his office won’t overlook low-level offenses.

“This is not murder,” he said. “But the legislature classified it as a felony, and that’s the law that I’m here to enforce.”

But enforcement is expensive. And Holman acknowledged it costs far more to run the TennCare fraud unit than the office will ever recoup from people on Medicaid, who are usually low-income to start with. Even if the state recovered every dollar from charges brought against beneficiaries in 2022, the total would amount to less than $900,000. The office has a budget of $6.4 million a year. Since its creation in 2005, the Office of Inspector General has brought in less than $10 million and charged nearly 3,200 people with fraud, according to its own news releases.

And the rate of arrests has slowed dramatically. It now arrests fewer people in a year than it previously did in a single month.

'Cliff' is coming

At this point, about one in four Americans is on Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The number of people enrolled increased by more than 20 million since early 2020. And for the first time since the start of the pandemic, states are going to be verifying income and addresses over the next year. Millions of Americans could lose their Medicaid coverage as a result. It’s up to each state to determine who is eligible and how to deal with potential fraud in the program.

Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said policing fraud among TennCare beneficiaries takes time and money that could be spent on something more helpful.

“It’d be great if our leaders would get out of the gotcha game and get into the getting people healthy game,” she said.

Especially now, as Medicaid programs are restarting checks on eligibility, Johnson said recipients shouldn’t have to worry that a mistake could eventually get them arrested.

Despite the ordeal she went through, Ingram is bouncing back. Still, she has legal bills to pay and has grown more frustrated at being ensnared by the state’s Medicaid dragnet.

“They made a big mistake,” she said.

This story was produced in partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.