02/17/2005

SPLC Helps Fight Against Health Care Cuts

In its ongoing effort to protect society's most vulnerable, the Center has joined a battle to prevent more than 300,000 poor people from losing health care coverage in Tennessee.

A Center grant awarded to the Tennessee Justice Center (TJC) this month will allow an attorney to spend a year working against proposed cuts to TennCare, Tennessee's state-funded health insurance program for low-income citizens.

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen is proposing significant cuts to the program, which currently serves 1.3 million poor, disabled and uninsured Tennesseans. Under the governor's proposal, 323,000 adults and as yet unknown number of children would lose their coverage.

Those remaining on the TennCare rolls would have their benefits reduced, and a monthly four-prescription limit would be imposed on all participants, regardless of need.

"The governor is devastating the TennCare program," said TJC director Gordon Bonnyman. "He is removing nearly half of all adults and cutting benefits to among the lowest levels in the country for those who remain on the program.

"If these cuts are enacted, Tennessee will plummet from having one of the best Medicaid programs in the country to being among the worst, if not the worst," Bonnyman said.

The Center offered its help because of the importance of ensuring that the underserved continue to receive health care and because national attention is focusing on the future of health care in Tennessee.

"This is an extremely significant cause, not just in Tennessee, but for the entire nation," said Center legal director Rhonda Brownstein. "This is a life-and-death issue. Many people will lose their health care and will not to be able to find it anywhere else. The governor's proposal is horrendous and shameful."

The grant from the Center will allow TJC to hire Mike Engle, one of Nashville's most prominent criminal defense attorneys. Engle is a 17-year veteran of the public defender's office and an adjunct professor at Tennessee State University.

Engle previously served as deputy general counsel for the state's Department of Health when it oversaw the Medicaid program. "I want to do anything I possibly can to help represent all these people," he said.

The Center's support is especially important because anticipated pro bono assistance from national law firms fell through. At least one firm backed out for fear of alienating some of its health care clients. In addition, TJC is facing several large private law firms who are working on the governor's behalf.

"It speaks to the importance of this whole fight that the Southern Poverty Law Center was willing to make it possible financially," said Bonnyman. "I think that people who care about the poor understand what's at stake."