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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the McMinn Higher Education Center on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Athens, Tenn. The new facility will include the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Athens, Cleveland State Community College, and the McMinn County UT Extension Institute of Agriculture.

NASHVILLE -- Southeast Tennesseans will get an opportunity to weigh in on Gov. Bill Lee's proposed federal Medicaid waiver in a public hearing scheduled for Oct. 16 in Chattanooga, an official said Wednesday.

A spokesperson with TennCare, Tennessee's version of the jointly state and federally funded health insurance program for an estimated 1.4 million low-income children, caretakers, the disabled and some elderly, said Wednesday the agency is adding Chattanooga to three previously public hearings, the second of which is taking place today in Knoxville.

"It's going to be at the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 16," TennCare spokeswoman Sarah Tanksley said in email response to a Times Free Press inquiry.

In adding Chattanooga to existing plans for public hearings in each of the state's grand divisions, along with providing access to the public the ability to comment through an online portal, Tanksley said the "goal is to just give as much opportunity for as many people to see this as possible."

The administration is also adding Memphis.

The first hearing took place in Nashville on Tuesday with a number of critics taking aim, among them U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, who denounced it as a "radical, Trump-inspired plan, to treat Tennesseans like guinea pigs. This waiver request not only doesn't help. It actually goes backwards," Nashville public radio station WPLN reported.

Lee, who was directed by fellow Republicans in the General Assembly to seek the waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' ancillary Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, formally unveiled the waiver on Sept. 17, triggering a 30-day public comment period.

The public comment period closes Oct. 18.

Tennessee's effort comes with President Donald Trump's administration inviting states to submit Medicaid waivers in which a state would get a single annual lump sum from the federal government.

Medicaid is an entitlement program in which the federal government matches whatever a state spends. Critics, including the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, says block grants are illegal. And the Trump administration does hope to save money through block grants.

Lee's plan is a hybrid proposal. He says it will allow funding for the managed care health program to continue with allowances for inflationary growth and increased enrollment while also protecting vulnerable Tennesseans on the program.

It includes a unique proposal in which the federal government would share its annual cost savings with the state on a 50/50 basis. It could provide as much as $1 billion more a year to the $12.1 billion program.

It also would give the state greater flexibility in how Tennessee operates the program, Lee says. Tennessee is the first state in the nation to seek such a waiver.

The state is seeking to convert some $7.9 billion in current federal funding into the hybrid block grant.

Talking with Nashville-based reporters on Tuesday, the governor said "the good news about this is it's not about ignoring folks," also calling it "such a good opportunity."

"It's going to be a big win for Tennessee if we get it done," Lee said.

The governor dismissed charges by U.S. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who says block granting federal dollars for Medicaid is illegal.

"I'm not concerned about the legality of it," Lee said. "We worked for months to make sure." He also said federal officials "know it's within the legal guidelines. We're very hopeful."

When unveiling the plan last month, Lee proposed holding three public hearings with one each in Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson. Federal law only requires two such hearings. But in response to concerns and questions over why two of Tennessee's four largest cities -- Memphis and Chattanooga -- had been excluded, TennCare added both.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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