Friday, October 1, 2010

TennCare program will give 7,000 a break on medical expenses

Neediest can apply only via hot line By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • October 1, 2010 Tennessee hospitals have partnered with the government to help thousands of the state's sickest and poorest residents offset the sky-high cost of their medical bills. But if they want a shot at the program, the state's poorest and sickest will need to stick close to the phone on Monday night. The program, known as TennCare's Standard Spend Down, will help a limited number of Tennesseans qualify for Medicaid by deducting their hospital and medical expenses from their incomes. There are only enough funds to offer the medical relief to 7,000 people, and only to the neediest residents — applicants must be elderly, blind or disabled, or the caretaker relative of a Medicaid-eligible child. "You could have a $5,000-a-month job, but have $7,000 a month in medical bills," said Michelle Mowery Johnson, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Human Services. The program will restore TennCare coverage to a fraction of the estimated 97,000 people who were cut out of the spend-down program in 2008, said Tony Garr, spokesman for the TennCare advocacy group Tennessee Health Care Campaign. "The fact of the matter is, reopening the program to 7,000 people … only scratches the bottom of the barrel," Garr said. The remaining people who have lost the spend-down support "are going without care or the hospital is picking up the bill for their care." Hoping to get the first few thousand people into the program as quickly as possible, the state has set up a toll-free hot line that swings into action on Monday night. The hot line will be open just 2½ hours every day — from 6 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. — and will shut down as soon as the first 2,500 applications come in. Kelly Gunderson, TennCare's director of communications, said the hot line is designed to allow people in every corner of the state to apply for the aid without having to drive to a service center. Strict guidelines The program is operating under strict federal deadlines for the funds, so the first round of applications needs to enter the system within the next 45 days. Later, enrollment will open again until all 7,000 spots are filled. The $32.7 million program is funded in part by $9.6 million in voluntary fees that Tennessee hospitals imposed on themselves to attract federal matching funds for indigent health care. The one-year program will allow people who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid to meet the income requirements — once their medical bills are factored into the equation. So, a widow living off a comfortable pension but dealing with mounting medical bills, or a single mother battling cancer, might be able to qualify for aid without sacrificing their incomes. "This is a program for people who either have very low incomes or very, very high medical bills," Mowery Johnson said. Because the eligibility requirements are so narrow, it's not known how many Tennesseans may qualify for the program, although TennCare officials expect to fill all the available program spots. It's also not clear how quickly the first 2,500 applications will be snapped up. Gunderson estimated that the hot line will shut down within a matter of days, and she urged people to call in as early as possible. But first, would-be applicants are encouraged to read the full eligibility requirements at

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