Senate bats back another effort to accept Medicaid expansion

In a likely last-gasp effort, Democrats in the state Senate tried and failed Tuesday to resurrect from the ashes the possibility of a Medicaid expansion in Louisiana.

The expansion, included in the federal Affordable Care Act, is an option for states. Gov. Bobby Jindal has rejected state participation on the argument that the expansion would ultimately be too expensive. Legislation to thwart the governor’s decision hit roadblocks during the session.

With the session now in its waning days, Democrats phoned news reporters during a lunch break Tuesday and vowed to make another push. Hours later, they put their plan into action on the state Senate floor.

The defeat of their late hour rally sparked cries of racism that, in turn, resulted in indignant tweets from the governor’s aides.

Medicaid is the health insurance program for the poor that is paid for by federal and state governments. The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, called Obamacare, would expand Medicaid eligibility to include people who previously made too much money to qualify, but not enough to afford adequate health coverage. The federal government would pay the entire costs at first, then most of the costs thereafter.

Jindal opposes the Medicaid expansion and he has been supported this session by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Democrats made a bid Tuesday to let voters decide the issue. The attempt came during debate on House Bill 532, which would allow hospitals to draw down federal funds. HB532 is a constitutional amendment that would go before voters on the ballot.

State Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, came to the podium on the Senate floor with an addition that he characterized as a short amendment with a huge impact. “Let the people decide whether to expand Medicaid,” he said.

Nevers said the expansion is needed to prevent thousands of people from going without insurance or Medicaid.

State Sen. Sherri Smith Buffington, who handled HB532 on the Senate floor, objected to Nevers’ amendment.

Buffington, R-Keithville, said the governor must decide the issue. She said the federal government would not accept any plan without his signature.

The Senate rejected the amendment with 15 voting for it and 23 voting against it.

With the issue settled, legislators dove into the meat of HB532 and House Bill 533.

The bills, which must be approved by voters, would make it harder for the state to reduce money that hospitals and nursing homes receive to treat Medicaid patients. HB532 now can go on the ballot. HB533, which addresses nursing homes, requires further action by the Louisiana House.

As the Senate debated one of the proposals, state Sen. Karen Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, delivered a parting punch on the failure of Medicaid expansion.

Peterson, D-New Orleans, leaned into a microphone on the Senate floor and said the expansion is unfavorable to some simply because it bears the name of a black president.

“It comes down to the race of the president of the United States, which causes people to disconnect and step away from the substance of the bill,” she said.

The governor’s political adviser, Timmy Teepell, later tweeted a video of Peterson’s remarks and urged U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to condemn the comments.

The Senate soundly rejected Peterson’s efforts to christen HB532 and HB533 Jindalcares or Jindalcare.

Buffington said private health care providers are in crisis because of Medicaid cuts. “Our community hospital survival is at stake,” she said at one point.

The Public Affairs Research Council, a nonprofit research organization based in Baton Rouge, issued a statement warning that the bills could lock up $1.9 billion in annual state spending. PAR said legislators would have less input into how the state spends its money because the state constitution would direct those dollars.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, made the same argument on the state Senate floor, asking Buffington why legislators should dedicate more dollars.

Over the years, dedications have decreased the amount of money that legislators actually budget each year and have left higher education and health care especially vulnerable when cuts have to be made.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said voters should realize that higher education now would be the most vulnerable to budget reductions.

Buffington said she just wanted to ensure that hospitals exist for babies born in need of intensive medical care.

“We’re not pitting hospitals against higher education,” she said. “We’re talking about saving babies.”

The Senate ultimately voted 33-5 in favor of HB532 and 34-4 in favor of HB533.

Voting FOR allowing a statewide vote on Medicaid expansion (15): State Sens. Adley, Broome, Brown, Heitmeier, Kostelka, LaFleur, Mills, Morrell, Murray, Nevers, Peterson, G. Smith, J. Smith, Thompson and Ward.

Voting AGAINST the Nevers amendment to SB532 (23): Senate President Alario and state Sens. Allain, Amedee, Appel, Buffington, Chabert, Claitor, Cortez, Crowe, Donahue, Dorsey-Colomb, Erdey, Gallot, Johns, Long, Martiny, Morrish, Peacock, Perry, Riser, Tarver, Walsworth and White.

NOT Voting (1): Sen. Guillory.