Catholic health group CEO calls for Medicaid expansion

By expanding its Medicaid program, Louisiana could provide health insurance to all of its uninsured children, the head of the Catholic Health Association of the United States said Thursday.

“If that’s not a worthy goal, I don’t know what is,” Sister Carol Keehan, the association’s president and chief executive officer said.

Keehan was the keynote speaker at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System’s annual Leadership Assembly, held at the Crowne Plaza. Keehan manages a system that includes more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities.

Expanding the health insurance program for the poor, an option under the Affordable Care Act, remains a special challenge in Louisiana, Keehan said, although a lot of people, including 700 nuns who descended on the capitol, have been trying to convince Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Jindal has rejected the Medicaid expansion, saying it would cost the state $1.7 billion over the first 10 years, with costs rising thereafter. Expanding Medicaid could cause further cuts to funding for higher education, transportation and other services, according to Jindal.

Medicaid is paid for by the federal and state governments.

During the first three years of the act, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the coverage for newly insured adults. But the federal government’s payments will drop to 90 percent by 2020.

Keehan said Louisiana could also get health insurance for half of the state’s uninsured adults by correctly expanding Medicaid and rolling out health insurance exchanges, where consumers could shop for coverage.

“It’s really very difficult to see how, except for political reasons, one would not do Medicaid expansion,” Keehan said.

Republicans, who make up the majority of the state Legislature, also oppose expanding Medicaid, and efforts to do so have failed this legislative session.

However, Keehan said Louisiana’s position on Medicaid expansion could change if other states successfully expand Medicaid and establish exchanges.

Louisiana residents aren’t going to get a break from paying their federal taxes, Keehan said. They might as well get their fair share of the additional help for the uninsured.

Expanding Medicaid would also help hospitals, Keehan said.

Instead of writing off the entire cost to care for the uninsured, hospitals would get some of those costs back through Medicaid.

Keehan said the Affordable Care Act has other important benefits, such as a reduction in health costs and better care for people with mental health issues.

Preventive care for people who now lack insurance would help keep their conditions from worsening, meaning fewer people end up in hospital emergency rooms, where the cost of care is highest, she said.

Keehan cited a 2011 report by the Urban Institute that estimated the Affordable Care Act would cut spending on uncompensated care by more than half.

Many of the uninsured are the working poor, people who hold one or two jobs but can’t afford health insurance, Keehan said. Those are the people who wait tables or serve food.

“We have to remember, these are the people we are supposed to love as we love ourselves,” Keehan said.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Health Association is working with Enroll America, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, to help get people enrolled in the exchanges, Keehan said. A number of studies have shown that 75 percent to 80 percent of those eligible don’t realize they are.

H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt, which do the tax returns for many low-income residents, could help with enrollment, Keehan said.