Gov. Bill Lee's health care task force prepares to meet, draft policy

Gov. Bill Lee's health care task force is hoping to introduce legislation to improve telemedicine throughout Tennessee in time for the 2020 legislation session.

Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, chairman of the governor's panel, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he hopes to have several ideas ready to pitch to the GOP-controlled statehouse, but first the panel must formally meet.

"This next session there's going to be some legislation we need to be prepared to engage in and discuss," McWhorter said. "But just as important, we want to be looking at what does this (task force) look like over the next, hopefully, seven years, definitely the next three years, and really start to build a strategy around the short-term goals, the midterm and long-term."

Lee, a Republican, announced during his annual State of the State address that he would create a task force to help improve health care access and costs. The move comes as Tennessee's health care system has been under scrutiny amid a string of rural hospital closures, an ongoing opioid crisis and many people lacking health insurance.

Lee's panel has not yet officially been organized since it was announced in January, but plans are in place to begin meeting this fall.

Like most other Tennessee Republican leaders, Gov. Bill Lee has opposed Medicaid expansion and has argued there are other solutions to addressing the state's uninsured population.

However, McWhorter and nine other members of Lee's Cabinet privately met with health care groups during the summer, holding nearly 100 meetings over two months and four "listening tours" in Cleveland, Clarksville, Memphis and Nashville.

He says the goal was to learn about Tennessee's health care system before developing policy proposals.

"We went out with the goal to get as diverse as we could in respect to meeting with different associations, individuals and, in some cases, companies that touched health care in all levels," McWhorter said. "I wanted to hear from all spectrums."

Out of those meetings, McWhorter says increasing telemedicine throughout the state has become a top priority. He expects the task force to work on legislation over the next weeks to be ready to submit to lawmakers next year, though details of the proposal have not been fleshed out.

"Telehealth is a big one," he said. "From a technology standpoint, it's about how can we provide more services that's more cost effective."

One item the task force will likely not endorse is expanding Medicaid eligibility, an option provided under the Affordable Care Act. To date, 31 states have opted for the expansion, but Tennessee has resisted, despite calls from health advocates who point to the state's uninsured population and limited options for health care.

Like most other Tennessee Republican leaders, Lee has opposed Medicaid expansion and has argued there are other solutions to addressing the state's uninsured population.

The governor's goal is to provide affordable health care access to Tennesseans," McWhorter said. "How you do it is obviously the key question. Being innovative and very thoughtful is the path we're taking."

The task force's focus is separate from the Medicaid waiver Lee's office is concurrently working on, which would ask the federal government for a fixed amount of money in the form of  block grants to fund health care to its lower-income and disabled residents. The waiver must be submitted by Nov. 20 to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

According to supporters, the goal is to allow states more flexibility to shape their Medicaid programs while also being given the opportunity to rein in spending.

Currently, the federal government pays an agreed-upon percentage of each state's Medicaid costs, no matter how much it rises in any given year. For Tennessee, that means the state receives approximately $7.5 billion in federal money for its $12.1 billion Medicaid program.

"The block grant is specific to an application to CMS on this ... but we're going to do the work on the task force regardless," McWhorter said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Kimberlee Kruesi, Associated Press

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Published September 13, 2019