Senators Seek Plan To Expand Louisiana's Medicaid Program

BATON ROUGE (AP) — State senators asked Louisiana's health department Monday to draw up a Medicaid expansion proposal within weeks, as they ready for a new governor who wants to tap into that provision of the federal health care law.

         Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected Medicaid expansion plans, siding with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, an expansion opponent. But Jindal is term-limited, and legislators are showing more openness to the idea as John Bel Edwards, a Democratic state representative and ardent expansion supporter, readies to take over as governor on Jan. 11.

         The Senate Finance Committee asked the Department of Health and Hospitals to devise an expansion plan before Jan. 1. Members also asked the Legislature's financial analysts to study the different models used by other states to determine how they could apply to Louisiana.

         "I'd like to see how much it costs. I don't think we've ever had a really good estimate of what it costs," Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said after the hearing. "It could be a benefit to Louisiana."

         Expanding the Medicaid program to cover the working poor would bring billions of new federal dollars into the state and is estimated to have some possible savings for Louisiana.

         Any expansion, however, won't help cover a $530 million Medicaid deficit that is looming in the current fiscal year. Without a fix, the health department estimates it would run out of money to pay doctors, hospitals and other Medicaid providers in May.

         "Once the money runs out, the payments to the providers stop. That's just the stark reality," said Jeff Reynolds, undersecretary for the department.

         To close the immediate Medicaid gap before the fiscal year ends June 30 would cost an estimated $191 million in state financing, to draw down the remaining portion in federal matching dollars.

         Jindal and lawmakers didn't put enough money into this year's Medicaid budget to cover increases in enrollment and in costs of items, like prescription drugs. An internal source of financing planned to fill the Medicaid gap was instead used by Jindal to cover another state budget deficit.

         Reynolds said the health department estimates Medicaid is enrolling about 2,000 new recipients a month. He said the boost is driven by private operators of the LSU hospital system working to put Medicaid-eligible patients on the program's rolls and by federal law requiring people to get health insurance making more people aware of their Medicaid eligibility.

         If Louisiana decides to expand its Medicaid program as allowed under President Barack Obama's signature health overhaul, as many as 500,000 more people would be eligible for the government-funded health insurance, according to data presented to the Senate committee.

         Medicaid expansion covers adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $33,400 for a family of four.

         Thirty states have agreed to expand their Medicaid programs. Edwards has said providing the health insurance to Louisiana's working poor will be a top priority for his administration.

         But questions have been raised about the workability of legislation passed earlier this year to help cover the state's cost-share of a Medicaid expansion and whether changes will have to be made to the financing tool.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte




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