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.
The governor has said that to avoid balancing the budget mostly with spending cuts, he would call another special session after the regular session adjourns.
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.”
Dardenne acknowledged that the letters might alarm some people. He emphasized that the letter states that the cuts were a possibility, not a certainty.
“I would imagine there’s going to be an extremely adverse reaction by anyone who gets this letter, and I don’t blame them,” Dardenne said. “The letter is very clear in telling these individuals that these cuts may happen and are not set in stone.”
The letters have also garnered national attention. Both Henry and Edwards are expected to appear on CBS News Wednesday night. Edwards is also expected to appear on Good Morning America Thursday morning.