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General Assembly Approves Medicaid Block Grant, Despite Unclear Future

Sergio Martinez-Beltran, WPLN

The Tennessee General Assembly has approved the so-called Medicaid block grant. Lawmakers spent just two days rushing it through.

The House passed the agreement on Friday morning, while the Senate did so on Thursday.

The lump sum is supposed to help the poor get medical insurance. But the future of the newly-passed agreement is uncertain once President-elect Joe Biden gets sworn in.

Republicans in the legislature hope that the federal government will keep the Trump administration’s promise that the lump sum will be given to Tennessee. But, Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville called the approach a Hail Mary.

“It’s a desperate play with a very limited chance of success,” Yarbro said Thursday on the Senate floor. “And that is a significant problem when you are talking about a third of our budget in our entire Medicaid program upon over a million of Tennesseans rely.”

Still, Republicans are hoping the Biden administration comes in with an open mind. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said that, if the new president reverts the block grant, the state will still be fine.

“If for some reason, the new administration and the new regime at CMS deems this inappropriate, or chooses to pull their commitment, then we will be back to the drawing board and we will negotiate a new waiver,” Johnson said.

If the Biden administration agrees, the state expects to receive an extra $6 billion over the next 10 years. Besides Medicaid benefits, the money could be used for housing or nutritional programs.

Although Democrats and healthcare advocates say this is not an expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, Sen. Richard Briggs said this is the closest the state could get right now. Briggs, a Knoxville Republican, has been one of the few Republicans to advocate for expanding Medicaid.

“This does give us an opportunity to make up some of those savings and we may be able to add people,” Briggs said. “It’s the only hope we have to try to get more people insured is with this.”