Tennessee becomes first state to ask permission for Medicaid block grants

Tennessee becomes first state to ask permission for Medicaid block grants
© Aaron Schwartz

Tennessee on Wednesday formally asked the Trump administration for permission to convert its Medicaid program into a limited, block grant–type model, a controversial plan that, if approved, could be the first in the nation.

The proposal will test the Trump administration’s ability to allow states the flexibility to make drastic changes to Medicaid.

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Imposing block grants in Medicaid has long been a major conservative goal and has been encouraged by the Trump administration, but it is not clear if the administration alone has the legal authority to allow such drastic changes.

Administration officials had drafted a guidance that would make it easier for states to apply for a capped payment or block grants, but the document was quietly removed from the White House Office of Management and Budget last week.

No states have been granted permission to date, but if Tennessee’s plan is approved, it would likely embolden other Republican-led states. The proposal will also mobilize opposition from patient advocacy groups, who have already been protesting since the state passed a bill 

“This proposal represents a significant opportunity for the federal government to test a potential innovative, national solution at how to incentivize states’ performance in maximizing the value of taxpayer dollars,” the state said in its application.

Republicans say policies like block grants allow for more state flexibility and are more fiscally sustainable.

Critics fear a block grant would ultimately lead to states kicking people off their rolls or pulling back services. But Tennessee’s proposal is a novel one that departs from some of the more traditional block grant ideas, even as it imposes financial caps on federal spending. 

Under Tennessee’s proposal, the state would receive a nearly $7.9 billion block grant from the federal government, which is based on projected Medicaid costs. The amount would be adjusted for inflation, but unlike a traditional block grant, it could increase in the future based on enrollment. 

If enrollment drops, the block grant amount would not decrease. The state said no current TennCare members would experience a loss or rollback of benefits.

Also unlike a traditional block grant, if the state spent less in a given year than it would have under the traditional Medicaid system, Tennessee would split those savings with the federal government.