BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Families of the terminally ill and health care workers planned a candlelight vigil Wednesday to protest Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to shutter the state's Medicaid hospice program in February.
Supporters of the program, which provides at-home, end-of-life care for people who can't afford private insurance coverage, say the cut will make Louisiana one of only two states to not pay for hospice care through its Medicaid program.
Jindal made a series of budget reductions in mid-December to help close a nearly $166 million deficit in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, the fifth consecutive year the governor's slashed spending to rebalance the budget because of a midyear gap.
In the latest group of cuts, the hospice decision drew the strongest complaints from lawmakers, with senators pushing the Jindal administration to find another way to trim spending, rather than ending the assistance for people on their death beds.
Despite the complaints and requests from lawmakers, the Department of Health and Hospitals is continuing with its plan to close the program to new adult recipients on Feb. 1. Cutting the program is estimated to save about $1.1 million in state funding this year and $3.1 million in state funding for the 2013-14 budget year, according to DHH.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee is considering whether to try to stop the administration's planned cut, with a committee meeting scheduled next week to review the emergency rule that would end reimbursement for the services.
The Jindal administration has said when cuts are required to the Medicaid program, the state only has a few optional benefits that can be reduced that aren't required by the federal government for participation in the shared federal/state program. Hospice is an optional program the health department said has been available since 2002.
"When looking at optional Medicaid programs for elimination and setting priorities, the department determined it was more critical to continue pharmacy benefits for adults, hemodialysis and group homes for people with development disabilities," DHH said in a statement about the hospice cut.
DHH Undersecretary Jerry Phillips has said the hospice cut doesn't affect anyone currently receiving services.
After the program ends, Phillips said people could seek those services through Medicare and through clergy and nonprofit groups, and he said Medicaid recipients still will have access to medication to relieve pain, through the pharmacy program.
The Alliance for the Advancement of End-of-Life Care, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that is fighting the hospice cut, said providing the care at home through a hospice program costs the state less than through hospitals or emergency rooms.
More than 5,800 people received hospice services through Louisiana's Medicaid program in the last budget year, according to the health department. Many of those, however, were eligible to receive the end-of-life care through Medicare. About 1,400 received the services in their homes and wouldn't have been eligible through Medicare.