NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion program marked its third anniversary this month and a Tulane University study released on Wednesday (July 31) says access to health care has improved and visits to hospital emergency rooms have dropped.
Paul Sanchez, a founding member of the band Cowboy Mouth, says he is a grateful beneficiary of the expanded Medicaid insurance rolls in Louisiana.
He said having government-funded health coverage was a tremendous help when he had two surgeries.
"I sat in horror waiting for the bills to come in…they never came because of Medicaid. I was taken care of by my state,” said Sanchez.
Sanchez was part of a news conference at St. Bernard Parish Hospital where the study results were released.
Tulane researchers found that the number of people who were unable to see a doctor in the past year due to cost decreased by 26.6 percent.
Dr. Mark Diana, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Tulane said the impact on hospital emergency departments is measurable.
"We’ve seen a steady decline like this in both ED visits and in-patient visits which indicates to us that they’re getting access to care, probably better primary care,” said Diana, as he motioned downward with his hand.
The study funded by the Louisiana Department of Health found that emergency department visits per 1,000 Medicaid expansion enrollees dropped from 115 visits per month to 90 between 2016 and 2018.
Diana said it is more expensive to treat patients in hospital emergency rooms.
"People stay healthier rather than getting into sick, you know, crisis situations and then going to the emergency department or being admitted to the hospital,” said Diana. “Second, it saves us a lot of money. It costs a lot less to take care of somebody upfront and give them good primary care.”
Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, embraced Medicaid expansion as soon as he took office in 2016. It is provided for under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Despite criticism from Republicans, Edwards maintains it was the right thing to do.
"What we did, we took our federal tax dollars that we were sending to Washington that before I became governor went to 30 other states, we brought those dollars back to Louisiana to provide health care to working poor people who because they work didn't qualify for Medicaid under the traditional program,” said Edwards.
Almost 500,000 people are enrolled in Louisiana’s expanded Medicaid program, according to the governor.
"We've insured about 455,000 working poor people. We've more than cut in half the uninsured rate in the state of Louisiana, it's around 11 percent today, the lowest in the history of our state. It’s how we addressed part of the $2 billion budget deficit that I inherited because we saved over $300 million because of the Medicaid expansion,” said Edwards.
Kimberly Keene, CEO of St. Bernard Parish Hospital, said the impact is being felt in that community.
"Better patient outcomes and continued growth of health services in communities like St. Bernard Parish,” she said.
UNO health care economist Walter Lane agrees Medicaid expansion has had a positive impact.
"Your people who were uninsured now have insurance, they're getting some treatments that they need, so overall I think it's been a very positive thing,” said Lane.
But he added that the impact on hospitals has been mixed.
"It has been a positive benefit for hospitals in that uncompensated care has moved into paid Medicaid, but Medicaid doesn't pay very well. The other negative effect though is a number of people, the fairly low-income people that had jobs that were on private insurance, dropped their private insurance and moved to Medicaid,” said Lane.
The conservative Pelican Institute says its analysis shows thousands of people dropped their private health coverage to take advantage of Medicaid expansion, driving up taxpayer costs.