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Mayor Andy Berke speaks with the editors of the Times Free Press, at the newspaper's offices in this 2018 file photo.

NASHVILLE — Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is partnering with a Nashville-based nonprofit health care advocacy group to locate and help more than 5,500 low-income Hamilton County children who lost their state-sponsored health insurance.

"When you're at the doctor with a sick child you shouldn't have to worry about if your health care insurance has lapsed," the mayor said in a statement. "We are going to do everything we can to work with these families to get them back on their plans."

Berke is partnering with the Tennessee Justice Center.

Michele Johnson, the Justice Center's executive director, and allies announced earlier this week that an estimated 128,000 children statewide were purged over the last two years from two programs that provide them with health coverage.

One is TennCare, the state's Medicaid program for low-income pregnant women and families. The other is CoverKids, the state's Children's Health Insurance Program that provides health insurance to uninsured children.

Between December 2016 and January 2019, TennCare enrollment for children in Hamilton County dropped 11.1 percent, falling from 39,031 to 34,696 — a loss of 4,335 children or teens through age 20. CoverKids enrollees fell by 1,202.

The Tennessean reported that state officials say the overall cuts came about because of reductions after years of allowing the programs to grow. The children were dropped because they no longer qualified or their families didn't respond to required renewal forms mailed over the last three years.

But the newspaper also reported that TennCare officials acknowledged that "many members" were disenrolled because they didn't respond to renewal forms. The agency was unable to estimate how many that was.

Tennessee's renewal process was snarled for several years by the previous Haslam administration's struggles to get a new computer system up and running, forcing the state to resort to mail and other measures.

The Tennessee Justice Center's Johnson said Wednesday the "response to the news of these children losing health coverage has been overwhelming."

Berke's office, she said, reached out early Wednesday "to offer to help us get these kids back on as quickly as possible. They offered to use staff and recruit volunteers to 'sherpa' these children back to the health coverage their futures depend upon."

As a result of that, Johnson said, "we reached out to elected officials throughout the state to let them know we would have two webinars to give them the tools to be first responders in this crisis.

"This was all on the strength of Mayor Berke's idea, moral clarity and ambitious dreams for the children of his city," she said. "This is what leadership looks like. It gives us hope and makes us so proud to partner with them."

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

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