By Sheridan Wall, LSU Manship School News Service
The Louisiana Department of Health acknowledged Tuesday that 1,672 people had received Medicaid coverage even though they earned at least $100,000 in 2017. Department officials said that nearly all of them had since been stripped from the rolls. An additional 8,474 people were enrolled in Medicaid even though the Louisiana Department of Revenue later found that they had reported incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 on their 2017 tax returns. Jen Steele, the state Medicaid director, said that 3,550 of those people are no longer enrolled, and 540 have supplied wage data supporting their current eligibility. She said the other 4,384 cases remain under review.
The data about these cases came to light at a House Appropriations Committee hearing as Republican legislators renewed their attacks on how the administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards has managed the program. Edwards, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year, has cited his support for the basic Medicaid program and his expansion of it to include nearly 500,000 residents making more than poverty-level wages as among his most significant achievements. Republicans have questioned the cost of the expansion, and state auditors have said the program had been managed too loosely. The Health Department has since beefed up computer systems to check eligibility and recently kicked 30,000 people off the rolls.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, and Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, led the questioning of health department officials about what they saw as lax controls. “Medicaid is the number one issue,” Edmonds said. Bacala asked if any “undocumented aliens” had received Medicaid benefits. Health Department Secretary Rebekah Gee remarked “I don’t know any aliens.” To which Bacala responded “immigrants, whatever.” When talking about indications of fraudulent billing by providers of mental health services, Bacala said the department needs to introduce initiatives to prevent these “shysters from taking the state to the cleaners.” But Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, noted that the expansion also had prevented rural hospital closures, eliminated waiting lists for people with developmental disabilities and increased availability to affordable Hepatitis C treatment.
The lengthy hearing opened with a plea by Marketa Walters, the secretary of the Department of Child and Family Services, for the committee to fund its $13 million budget shortfall. A crippling case load, increasing costs for technology to manage and store cases, and an earlier reduction of 500 employees all weigh heavily on the department, she said. Without the additional funding, she said, the department will not be able to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food-stamp program. Walters said that “this is not what we want to do.”
Her comments came as the committee discussed a budget proposed by its chairman, Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and backed by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. The committee is working on a budget under the assumption that state revenue experts will not recognize a surplus in state revenue.
Gov. Edwards has said that the additional revenue should be recognized and that it would be enough to continue funding the SNAP program. While the majority of the funding for child and family services comes from federal dollars, the department said it has made efforts to bring in additional funding through public and private partnerships.
The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids initiative, for instance, has supported the state with $1 million. Walters said her department is actively looking for similar partnerships. She said the state used to handle child abuse investigations, which are now funded through a federal program.