published Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Tennessee health advocates criticize TennCare response

Tennessee mitigation letter
Tennessee mitigation letter

Health advocates in Tennessee and in the Southeast say they are "disappointed" and "troubled" by TennCare's response to federal officials about problems with the state's Medicaid application system.

TennCare officials released a strongly worded response to federal officials on Monday evening, taking issue with federal criticism that TennCare Director Darrin Gordon described as "greatly exaggerated."

The original federal letter from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that Tennessee has failed to meet all but one of seven federal requirements to get a new eligibility system up and running under the Affordable Care Act.

Because the state's new $35 million computer system has been delayed, Tennessee has sent people to sign up for Medicaid exclusively through HealthCare.gov, removing state-based or in-person application processes.

Michele Johnson, executive director of the Nashville-based Tennessee Justice Center, said TennCare's response was faulty.

"Both in form and substance, their letter basically said 'We're shooting the messenger. There's no problems here, and if there are, they are the feds' fault,'" Johnson said.

The TJC, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Health Law Program have said they are closely monitoring TennCare's response to the federal government.

The groups have indicated that they may sue TennCare if the agency does not pledge to fix what they say are longstanding problems.

"Tennessee is aware and they acknowledge that many people have problems getting enrolled, but they're not doing very much to fix it," said Sam Brooke, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Brooke said the group is "seriously evaluating what our next steps are" with the state agency.

Walter Davis, executive director of the advocacy group Tennessee Health Care Campaign, said "there still seems to be a lot of finger-pointing" on the state's part.

"Many things would be better served if TennCare and the Haslam administration could sit down and say 'let's fix this.'"

It is unclear what the next step from Medicaid will be. Federal officials did not provide a comment by press time Tuesday.

Last week, a spokesman said that the federal agency will "remain in close contact" to ensure Tennessee is compliant.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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