Tennessee drops over 31,000 from Medicaid in one month as renewals resume

More than 31,000 TennCare members have lost health insurance coverage since the state began reverifying enrollee eligibility for the first time in three years, according to newly released data.

Of those who lost coverage, more than 23,700 either failed to return their renewal packet or additional information that was requested, according to the first TennCare "unwinding report" released over the weekend. Nearly 7,400 lost coverage because they were no longer eligible for the program.

The report includes renewal figures through April. May and June renewals are not yet complete because people still have time to respond to the renewal packet, a TennCare spokesperson said via email.

The federal government temporarily paused the required annual renewal process for Medicaid coverage during the pandemic public health emergency. As a result, membership for Tennessee's Medicaid program, TennCare, increased by more than 25%, according to state data.

Earlier this year, TennCare officials said they anticipated around 300,000 Tennesseans would lose their Medicaid coverage once the renewal process resumed.

For the month of April, slightly more than 80,000 TennCare members were due for renewal. Roughly 24,800 members were automatically renewed, while nearly 18,900 responded to TennCare communication and were approved to continue their coverage, according to the report.

Nearly 5,300 renewals were slated as pending.

A person deemed ineligible for failing to submit a renewal packet can submit the packet within 90 days to have coverage reinstated if still eligible.

Vanessa Zapata is an attorney at the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit legal services and advocacy organization primarily focused on access to safety net programs such as TennCare, which provides health insurance to primarily lower income women, children and people with disabilities.

Zapata said in a phone interview the organization has been anxious about the redetermination process restarting because, before the pandemic, Tennessee saw its uninsured child rates spike due in part to a drop in TennCare enrollment. News reports at the time said the drop in TennCare enrollees was in part because eligible members didn't respond to the required renewal forms.

While she said there have been some process improvements since prior to the COVID-19 emergency — such as the ability to renew online — Zapata said the latest report shows a significant number of people are still losing coverage due to paperwork issues.

"We just think that's wrong and that something in the system is not working well when it's simply paperwork that's causing barriers to people having health care," she said.

Because TennCare serves a more vulnerable population, enrollees may have trouble completing the renewal process on their own or miss communication because they've moved, Zapata said. In addition, others may either not remember or may not have experienced the renewal process given that it was paused.

"The last three years, you were secure in your health insurance, and so it's just going to be surprising for people who may not fully understand — generally, our safety nets require a lot of your work," she said.

Zapata encourages everyone who's able to create a TennCare Connect account to keep up with the status of their coverage, even if they don't think they're up for renewal.

Anyone who feels like they're unnecessarily dropped or experiencing issues should also go ahead and file an appeal, she said. Those needing assistance with an appeal can contact the Tennessee Justice Center.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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