By Devon Sanders and Kaylee Poche, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana Department of Health will send letters to 37,000 Medicaid recipients Thursday notifying them that they may be ineligible for services if a budget approved by the Republican-led House is enacted.
Gov. John Bel Edwards wants the Legislature to pass revenue-raising measures to minimize the cuts, and top House Republicans on Wednesday questioned his administration’s decision to send the letters now, calling it a “scare tactic.”
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said the choice to send the letters was “premature at best, reckless at worst.”
But Health Secretary Rebekah Gee and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne insisted at a press conference Wednesday that this was not the case. They said they were only sending the letters to notify Medicaid recipients of the possibility of cuts and give them time to make any necessary adjustments.
“This letter is scary,” Dardenne said. “It is not a tactic.”
Under the budget passed by the House, 37,000 individuals would no longer be eligible for Medicaid. About 20,000 of them would be forced out of nursing homes across the state, while others who are unable to live independently would lose access to community homes or in-home services.
The cuts would go into effect if legislators are unable to agree to raise additional revenue to solve the state’s projected $648 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year.
The House failed to pass any revenue-raising measures during a special session earlier this year. The Legislature cannot vote on any revenue-raising measures during the current regular session.
Edwards, a Democrat, has called on Republican leaders to pass tax measures to replace the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be lost when a temporary one-cent increase in the state sales tax expires on July 1.
Michelle Alletto, deputy secretary of the Health Department, said that alerting the Medicaid recipients will allow them to search for other programs, like the federal Supplemental Security Income program, for which they may qualify.
Most of the recipients will not be eligible for other services, she said, and the application process for the ones who are could take several months.
“For a vast majority, this is their long-term care plan,” Alletto said.
A teary-eyed Gee said the decision to send the letters was done for those who would no longer be able to afford the services they once had, and that she and the governor do not want to see the cuts take place.
“We’ve really tried to underscore that these are real people,” Gee said. “But unfortunately, we have to take action. This is not the heart of the administration to do this.”
Gee also said while the loss of eligibility would not take place until July 1, sending the letters Thursday was imperative to allow those affected to plan.
Republican legislators were not convinced.
Henry, the Appropriations Committee chairman, compared the decision to send the letters to what happened in 2016 when Edwards warned that if legislators did not raise revenue, LSU football and other college athletic programs would be suspended.
“This is LSU football cancellation all over again,” said Henry. “You all remember that?”
The Senate Republican Caucus released a statement saying the administration’s decision to send the letter was premature.
“We in the Senate have no intention of putting Medicaid recipients on the streets or closing down medical schools,” the caucus wrote. “It is imperative that we approach the budget issues in a responsible and measured fashion.”
[Ed.’s Note: The following graphs were added by BPT staff] State Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, posted on her Facebook page Tuesday afternoon ahead of the press conference, asking her constituents to remember that Edwards directs the Department of Health on its spending.
“He decides who will get funded and who will not…Therefore, it is the Governor’s and Dept. of Health’s directive that the Nursing Homes are being forced to act on, not the legislatures…How sad to cause such undue stress on our most vulnerable and sickly citizens and the employees who care for them,” her post said.
She said that HB 1, the state’s budget bill, is currently being considered in the Senate and the Louisiana Department of Health is funded at 93.6 percent according to last year’s expenditures. She added that although the governor wanted to raise $1.3 billion in taxes in the special session, the deficit was far less than expected and that the “fiscally responsible thing to do” was to wait and see what the real number was before “asking our hardworking citizens to give more of their hard-earned money.”
“At the present time, our deficit has shrunk to about $440 million and may shrink even more,” Horton said on her post.Do you all want to have your taxes permanently raised before we even know if they are needed? I know that you do not so I thank you all for your support and confidence, knowing that I will present you all with the facts on any given issue before voting.”