State health chief warns Medicaid recipients of possible loss of benefits

State health chief warns Medicaid recipients of possible loss of benefits
La. Health Secretary Rebekah Gee, M.D., talks to media about letters being sent to Medicaid recipients.

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The head of the state health department called it a "disappointing" and "unprecedented day" as she announced that written notices are going out to nearly 40,000 Medicaid recipients warning that they could lose benefits due to the ongoing budget crisis.

"Our hearts are breaking over the need to do this, however, we cannot provide services with no money to pay for them. We simply cannot," said Dr. Rebekah Gee during an afternoon press conference.

She said her department has no choice but to begin notifying people who would be affected, a number that includes the elderly, disabled and some who are in nursing homes.

"These are snail-mail, hard-copy letters that will go out in one batch tomorrow to just about 37,000 currently enrolled Medicaid recipients," said Michelle Alletto, Deputy Secretary of the Dept. of Health.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the budget approved by the Republican-dominated state House does significant harm to state health care services.

"The budget that left the House of Representatives, as we all know, has eviscerated the Medicaid program," said Dardenne.

The House-approved budget awaiting state Senate consideration slashes the La. Department of Health by more than $500 million, and when federal matching dollars are factored in, the cut becomes more painful, health department officials said.

"The budget cut is so substantial, $1.8 billion to my department, that we simply cannot function as we did before with this budget, and we need to take action," Gee said.

Come June 30, more than $1 billion in temporary state taxes will expire, creating a so-called "fiscal cliff," and leaving state government with a money shortfall of nearly $700 million.

Gov. John Bel Edwards wants another special session before July 1 to consider new taxes to avoid deep budget cuts.

Republicans leaders in the House pushed back hard. They said the governor is trying to scare the public, and noted that the budget is only halfway through the legislative process.

"The decision by the governor and this administration to give eviction notices to the elderly population of Louisiana without a question is a political move," said Rep. Lance Harris, Chairman of the GOP Legislative Caucus.

"It's unfortunate that he has scared the elderly in our neighborhoods, in our districts," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee where the budget bill originates.

Dardenne was asked by a reporter if they were required by law to send the notices now.

"No, there's no federal requirement for a specific date to send these letters. These letters are being done because this eligibility is being redetermined and we have to start the process, and that emergency rule process has begun, and so that process is underway. It's important to let the people who are adversely affected by potentiality to also be notified," said Dardenne.

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