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MSHA, Wellmont reps urge federal funding for expansion of Medicaid

Jennifer Sprouse • Feb 7, 2013 at 10:02 PM

BLOUNTVILLE –– Two major health systems in Northeast Tennessee predicted Thursday billions of dollars in detrimental economic impact statewide if state legislators do not accept federal money for Medicaid expansion.

Representatives from Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System held a joint news conference at Tri-Cities Regional Airport to discuss their support of federal funding that would allow Tennessee health systems to expand Medicaid coverage to uninsured patients.

Marvin Eichorn, chief financial officer for Mountain States, said that if Tennessee legislators were not to accept this Medicaid expansion the impact in 10 years would be more than $7 billion and $3 billion in five years.

A Tennessee Hospital Association news release issued Thursday said the “hospital reductions would have a $13.3 billion recessionary impact on Tennessee’s communities as the cuts are phased in over the next decade.”

“What really hits home to both Wellmont and Mountain States in our region, just in Northeast Tennessee alone ... the numbers, as far as the effect for us over the next 10 years, is over $600 million, so that’s very ... significant,” Eichorn said. “We’re faced with some pretty significant issues, I think, on both our parts, assuming that ... the expansion doesn’t move forward. We’re urging our legislators in Tennessee to allow the Medicaid expansion to go forward.”

According to an article by The Associated Press Thursday, Republican lawmakers delayed a bill proposed by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would ban Tennessee from expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville said he persuaded Kelsey to delay his bill, not wanting to prevent Gov. Bill Haslam from seeing each side of the situation before making a decision.

The expansion of Medicaid, according to the article, would increase the percent of poverty eligibility, which would add an estimated 145,000 people to TennCare. The government would pay for all increased costs under the expansion for the first three years, and gradually phase down its share to 90 percent, which is above the average 60 percent currently covered for Medicaid.

According to the article, Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an earlier panel discussion that he’s not convinced the federal government will stay committed to its word on funding the costs.

“The 90 percent matching rate will likely be one of the first places the federal government looks to cut its spending,” he said.

According to the THA release, if the Medicaid expansion does not occur the state could lose more than 90,000 jobs over the next decade.

Alice Pope, Wellmont’s chief financial officer, said the THA and the hospital systems in the region were supportive of the Affordable Care Act with the understanding the act was predicated upon Medicaid expansion coverage for Tennessee, as well as Virginia, where both Wellmont and Mountain States have hospitals.

“We agreed to some significant cuts and reimbursement for Medicare beneficiaries in the hopes that we would have some elimination of the uninsured patients that we’re caring for today,” Pope said. “Both of our health systems have a significant burden in treating patients who do not have health insurance and ... we are very hopeful that both the state of Tennessee and Virginia would agree to an expanded Medicaid coverage for the uninsured patients in those communities.”

She said the proposed legislation would expand Medicaid to 133 percent of federal poverty limits and that a patient’s ability to qualify for Medicaid is valuable to each health system including Wellmont, which currently treats around 8 percent to 9 percent of uninsured patients.

“When a patient is able to qualify for Medicaid it at least covers a portion of that cost. It doesn’t cover 100 percent of that cost of care, but (it) at least contributes something and allows us to at least provide that care for those patients who really have no alternative care settings to seek,” Pope said. “This would give those patients ... a payment source and access to care.”

Both Pope and Eichorn said they were both hopeful state legislators would pass the Medicaid expansion, which would become effective Jan. 1, but have been also examining opportunities should the expansion not pass.

“It’s very important ... we get this word out pretty much (in) the eight, nine, 10, 11 weeks they’ve got left to act on this one way or the other. We want to get the message out and make sure they realize, and hopefully the people in the state realize ... just how significant an issue this is. So, hopefully they can talk to their legislators and ... urge them to pass something that will allow this to go forward.”

Pope said that “it’s not ... hospitals just looking for additional money, it’s about ... doing something for our communities and for the patients so that they can have access to care.”

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