East Tennesseans' disability payments interrupted over TennCare flap

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - A disabled Knoxville man who recently lost a big chunk of his disability check says he also lost his dignity. It happened after he failed to file a renewal letter with TennCare, which he says he never received.

TennCare says it is improving the envelopes and letters it sends to thousands of people enrolled in a special program. It's a Medicate program for eligible low-income seniors and the disabled called the Medicare Savings Program, or MSP. 

The MSP benefits are paid and administered by TennCare, but apparently, many who receive the financial assistance didn't know they had to re-apply for TennCare earlier this year. Some say they never received the information packet.

Since June, Billie Robinson's monthly disability paycheck has been cut by nearly a third. Ten years ago, he was severely injured on the job. Then seven years ago, he started receiving Social Security disability, plus medical care. Robinson received his last full Social Security check in May.

"They cut my paycheck. It was cut by quit a substantial amount - $390 was taken out," said Robinson. "t helps me pay my bills, be able to live survive."

He also says medications are a factor. He takes nine or ten different ones.

Last year at this time, TennCare sent out renewal information packets to people like Robinson who are eligible for MSP. Tenncare wrote saying he had missed the renewal deadline. Robinson said he never received the packet.

"At first they tried to blame me. They said it was my fault because I had not checked my mail. I told them I check my mail everyday. I would have turned this back in had I seen it," he said.

Once Robinson realized why his check was cut dramatically, he filed an appeal, but the harm had already been done.

"[I lost] a lot. My home. My dignity. I had an apartment. I kept the state aware of where I was located because I receive assistance. They knew my address. They told me I was one of a hundred people who did not receive it," Robinson said.

"They say because I didn't do the TennCare letter they're going to make me pay for my premiums now," said Kathy Flaherty.

In July, WATE 6 On Your Side reported that Flaherty's Social Security disability payments were cut after she had failed to return renewal papers to TennCare that she said she never before received. Flaherty said at the time she was unaware her Medicare Part B premium came from TennCare.

"It's very confusing. All these years, I've never had a letter like this," Flaherty said.

"They got no notice, they got no packet from TennCare, Just suddenly they have a Social Security check that is half as much as what it was before," said Christ Coleman with the Tennessee Justice Center.

In Nashville last summer, Coleman said attorneys at the Tennessee Justice Center wrote to the state, requesting changes be made to the redetermination letters and envelopes. TennCare has now added new messaging to the renewal package envelopes that say in bold: "Open and Act NOW!"

There is more simple and direct language. The envelope says important health insurance papers about TennCare are inside. The redetermination letter says that TennCare is paying for the Medicare Savings Program, paying for your Medicare costs.

Robinson received information from the state that his appeal went through and that normal payments will soon resume.

"They said that it has been taken care of. I am hoping they are keeping their word," he said.

TennCare says eligibility redetermination is an ongoing process with letters sent out every month. TennCare says it continually strives to improve its processes and believes that by explaining the connection between TennCare and Medicare in the letters it sends should make the renewal process easier now.

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