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Thousands of elderly Tennesseans could get access to home health care, starting July 1

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Blake Farmer
At Knollwood Manor in Lafayette, Tenn., occupational therapists Ashley Rose and Patsy Wilkerson help a resident work on her motor skills. With a shortage of certified nursing assistants, they joke that they have become CNA assistants, helping change sheets and feed patients.

TennCare will begin chipping away at its waiting lists for home-based elderly care next month. That means thousands of people could soon be eligible for home health services paid for by the state.

The legislature expanded the home-based programs this spring in response to a recent study by the Tennessee Comptroller, which conducts policy research in addition to serving as the state’s financial watchdog.

In a report published in late April, the Comptroller determined that the state would likely save money by expanding TennCare services that help keep seniors in their homes, rather than paying for them to live in a pricey nursing facility. So lawmakers approved roughly $30 million to add thousands of spots in the programs known as Choices and Options.

Options is meant for seniors who don’t meet low-income requirements for Medicaid but do have a disability. Its expansion, starting July 1, should provide services for the roughly 2,500 people on the waiting list.

One of the benefit groups under Choices is meant for low-income seniors who don’t yet need a nursing home but are at risk. That waiting list hasn’t taken new names since 2015. The additional state money will be paired with federal matching funds and should open up 1,750 slots. TennCare has initiated a comment period with plans of opening enrollment Oct. 1.

The Comptroller has also made other recommendations to improve long-term care in the state that haven’t yet been fully addressed. Topping the list is increasing pay for workers who help seniors at home with bathing, dressing and fixing meals. Surging inflation is counteracting TennCare’s raise for home-based caregivers, taking effect July 1.

“The state can expand program eligibility more broadly,” research analyst Lancer Iverson said Wednesday during a panel discussion on long-term care. “But to get the intended effect, there must be the direct-care staff available to do the actual work.”

This year, the legislature did establish a task force to look at increasing worker pay. Its proposals are due in January.