BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana's lawmakers have turned back efforts to expand the state Medicaid program to give the working poor government-funded health insurance, the third year of defeats for the legislation.
The Senate health care committee voted 5-3 Wednesday against a coverage expansion bill proposed by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa. A few hours later, the House health care committee took a similar approach, voting 9-7 against expansion legislation by Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.
Expansion backers hoped Louisiana's financial troubles and the offer of billions of federal dollars could send more votes their way this year. Most of the cost would have been paid by the federal government, which would put up an estimated $16 billion over 10 years.
But Republican opposition to the expansion — and President Barack Obama's signature health care law that allows it — remains strong in the GOP-led state Legislature.
Supporters of the Medicaid expansion say it would extend health insurance coverage to nearly 300,000 people, like waitresses, construction workers and others in minimum wage jobs who can't afford it. They also said it would help health care providers burdened with uninsured patients and create thousands of jobs in the health industry.
"I believe that there is a moral imperative to do this. I believe that there is a fiscal imperative to do this," Edwards told the House committee. "I don't think this is a partisan issue. I just think it's the right thing to do."
Nevers said: "People are dying and people are much more seriously ill today because we have refused to expand Medicaid."
Opponents, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, say the increased coverage would be too costly for Louisiana and the federal government and would expand a broken, government-run health system.
"The state government has no money. The federal government is losing money," Sandra McDade with the conservative Louisiana Power Coalition told the committee. "Quite frankly, we can't afford it."
The health insurance coverage would have been offered to adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — less than $33,000 for a family of four.
Disagreement about the cost of a Medicaid expansion absorbed much of Wednesday's debates.
Edwards cited the nonpartisan legislative financial analysis that estimated the state would save $52 million next year if it expanded Medicaid and would continue to save money for several years after that.
Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert, a Jindal appointee, disagreed with the cost estimates provided to lawmakers by their budget analysts and said the state in later years would face a sizable price tag.
Rep. Richard Burford, R-Stonewall, questioned whether the federal government would shrink its payment rates in later years, leaving Louisiana to pay a greater share of an expansion it can't afford.
Phillip Joffrion, director of the Louisiana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national tea party group, said other states have seen millions of dollars in increased, unexpected costs when they expanded their Medicaid programs.
The vote fell along party lines in the House committee, with Republicans opposed to the measure and Democrats in support. But in the Senate committee vote, Republican Sen. Fred Mills joined with Democrats to back the expansion bill.
After rejecting Edwards' Medicaid expansion legislation, the House committee also voted down a similar proposal from Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport.
House Concurrent Resolution 3 and Senate Bill 40 can be found at http://www.legis.la.gov