TennCare changes hurting local schools

Hamilton County schools use reimbursed funds to purchase invaluable equipment like this for children with special needs. (Image: WTVC)

Changes in TennCare are causing headaches for Hamilton County Exceptional Education Programs.

In Tennessee, school districts are legally obligated to provide medical services to children with special needs while they are at school.

TennCare is supposed to reimburse some of those costs but recent changes are slowing that flow of money and accelerating budget problems.

Since 2010, the Hamilton County school system has received just over $3.6 million in Medicaid reimbursements.

That money covers services like the occupational therapy Paula Offutt provides to children with special needs at East Brainerd Elementary School.

The children she works with "have various physical cognitive, sensory dysfunctions that interfere with their ability to participate in their educational program," Offutt said.

Offutt isn't technically a school employee, she works for Stellar Therapy Services, a contract company that handles TennCare reimbursement for Hamilton County.

Melissa Christopher own Stellar Therapy Services.

Christopher says that over the past two years, changes in TennCare have made her job more and more complicated.

"They are making it increasingly more difficult to access these funds," Christopher said.

She says "TennCare agencies are putting up obstacles. They’re administrative and they’re not allowing new therapists to be in the network. They’re making it increasingly challenging to receive the reimbursements for covered healthcare services that the school district is entitled to receive reimbursements for."

Christopher made it clear that fewer funds doesn't necessarily mean cuts to care, "Hamilton county schools are going to keep providing the services anyway. That's never in question."

What is in question is the necessary classroom equipment used by children with special needs.

" We don't want them to have to stay in their wheelchairs all day," Offutt explains as she walks around her classroom, "these chairs are adaptable, they can recline."

This equipment isn't cheap.

"A stander is a $5,000 piece of equipment," that allows children who struggle to stand on their own to be supported.

The money that the school system gets from reimbursements for therapy is funneled back to Hamilton County schools to help pay for equipment like this.

Without reimbursements, equipment purchases won't be possible unless the county pulls funds from other parts of it's budget, a move that would affect all students of Hamilton County.

On Wednesday, representatives from Stellar Therapy Services will meet with the state legislature on Wednesday to address their concerns.

At the school board, the group asked for support and attendance at that meeting.

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