Over half of labor force on TennCare

By Julie Fann
star staff

If TennCare changes boot more Carter Countians out of the program, health insurance for more than half of the labor force will be in jeopardy. Approximately 57 percent of the working population in Carter County is on TennCare, according to the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development and TennCare officials.
   Carter County residents in the labor force as of August 2003 totaled 25,440. Out of those, 15,383 receive TennCare benefits. Nearly 30 percent of the entire population of Carter County is on TennCare.
   Haynes Elliott, the county's industrial recruiter, said he does not know how many employers in Carter County provide health insurance or to what extent. "I'm not privy to any of that information. All industries that I recruit we basically require that they have major medical health benefits for their employees and retirement systems for their employees," said Elliott. "Everyone that I've brought in has those - Star Industries, A.Y. McDonald, and Siemens Westinghouse."
   Elizabethton-Carter County Chamber of Commerce staff would not provide the Star with a list of businesses who are registered with their office or any information concerning employers.
   In March 2002, TennCare began a re-verification process and moved application procedures to the Department of Human Services. According to Michael Drescher, TennCare public relations director, 190,000 state residents came off the program.
   However, many who applied for re-verification were eligible to receive Medicaid. While other states limit Medicaid benefits, Tennessee remains quite generous.
   According to Jack Hensley, DHS director in Carter County, those who no longer qualified for TennCare Standard were eligible for Medicaid. "Our Medicaid caseload increased in 2002 by 1,930 from 3,792. Currently, we have 5,722 applicants on Medicaid, an increase of approximately 54 percent," said Hensley. About 4,300 Carter County TennCare recipients will go through the re-verification process in the spring 2004, he said.
   Ed Herbert, Mountain States Health Alliance public relations director, said 69 percent of patients at Sycamore Shoals Hospital receive either TennCare or Medicaid.
   Daily, the public hears about factors contributing to the problem such as skyrocketing insurance, pharmaceutical, and health care prices and, as a result, a reluctance on the part of companies to provide health insurance for their employees.
   Employer-provided health insurance reaches three out of every five Americans, according to the Employer Benefits 2003 Annual Survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, the foundation also reported for the first time that the vast majority of workers pay for premiums and part of the cost for services, including office visits, prescription drug co-pays and hospital admissions.
   Between spring 2002 and spring 2003, monthly premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose 13.9 percent, the third consecutive year of double-digit increases and the highest since 1990, the Kaiser Foundation reported.
   In response, more state legislatures are considering mandates that require employers provide health insurance. Those who disagree with mandates believe such laws only inflate health care prices more.
   Steb Hipple, professor of economics at East Tennessee State University, said that TennCare was an overly ambitious program from the start. "It was an effort to provide insurance coverage for those who were unemployed or not getting it from employers, but it has ballooned to the point that it is a burden. It was a noble idea, but in terms of cost it consumes state finances," he said.
   An independent consulting firm recently concluded that TennCare as it exists now is not financially viable. Nevertheless, soaring health care costs remain a nationwide problem.
   Jack Lawson, the region's economic development director, said the solution is to encourage employers to give benefits to the employee. However, the problem, he said, is how to do that.
   "I don't see that it's a problem to be solved on the federal level; I see it more as a state problem, to be truthful. But that's the problem we've gotten into with TennCare is that the state has assumed these problems that employers used to assume. States will have to work with employers and hospitals to reach a solution," Lawson said.