A plan to add a work requirement to TennCare seems to be in doubt, as the top Republican in the state Senate raises questions about the cost and design of the proposal.
That's delayed a final vote, though Senate Speaker Randy McNally is stopping short of saying the idea is dead.
Lawmakers unexpectedly pulled Senate Bill 1728 from the calendar Thursday morning, just before it was to come up for consideration. Companion legislation has already passed the state House of Representatives.
Republicans have shown broad support for a TennCare work requirement, which would make recipients work at least 20 hours a week, volunteer or enroll in school. They liken it to the work requirement for food stamps, which Tennessee recently reinstituted.
McNally agrees the idea is appealing — and not just within the state legislature. He suspects it would also be popular with Tennessee voters.
"If you poll that issue, I think that most people agree that able-bodied people … ought to have a work requirement or a school requirement," he says. "But if you poll it with the cost, I think you might get some different answers."
Budgeters estimate it would cost the state nearly $45 million to monitor a work requirement. That works out to more than $10,000 for every person the program will discover should be working but hasn't been.
That's because TennCare already bars most able-bodied adults. Only those who can show they're caring for someone else — like a child or a disabled relative — are allowed to enroll.
The work requirement would likely cost far more than it would save the state. Budgeters estimate a nearly $19 million net annual loss. So lawmakers propose raiding another safety-net program, cash-assistance to needy families, to pay for it.
McNally suggests those who want the work requirement need to figure out solutions to all of these problems, before a final vote takes place. He says they should work with Governor Bill Haslam's administration to hammer out the details.
Haslam has said he would sign a work requirement, if it were to pass the state legislature.