- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana lawmakers again have turned away efforts to expand the state Medicaid program as allowed under the federal health care law, with the Senate health committee overwhelmingly rejecting the idea Wednesday.

The definitive 6-2 vote against expansion likely ends the Senate’s debate on the issue for the session. Similar bills await discussion in the House health committee, but they are expected to meet the same fate if lawmakers choose to debate them.

Sen. Ben Nevers‘ proposal would have let voters decide whether to direct Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to offer government-funded insurance coverage to adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level - less than $33,000 for a family of four.

Backers of the bill estimated coverage would be extended to 240,000 people. Most of the cost would have been paid by the federal government, which would put up an estimated $16 billion over 10 years.

“I agree we can do better (on health care). I disagree that this is the answer,” said Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, as he made the motion to kill the bill.

After more than four hours of debate, the vote of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee divided along party lines. Republicans voted to kill the measure, while Democrats supported passage.

Supporters said the insurance expansion would improve health care for thousands of Louisiana citizens who work at low-wage jobs and can’t afford the coverage on their own, while also providing an influx of dollars for health care providers.

“If we fail to expand Medicaid in this state, people will die for it,” Nevers said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and Republican Party leaders oppose the expansion, which was authorized under President Barack Obama’s health overhaul. Supporters of Nevers‘ bill urged lawmakers to “bypass” the governor by putting the issue on a ballot before voters.

Opponents said the increased insurance coverage would be too costly for Louisiana and the federal government and could drive as many as 174,000 people from private insurance to government-funded health care.

Jindal’s health secretary, Kathy Kliebert, said Congress could cut the federal money for the expansion at any time, and she said giving a person a Medicaid card doesn’t guarantee improved access to care or better health outcomes.

Kliebert said the expansion would cost the state $1.7 billion over 10 years. Committee Chairman David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, replied: “You’re talking about a worst case scenario.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office estimates the Medicaid expansion would decrease state spending for the first three years, but would cost the state as much as $886 million over a decade.

Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat, urged state senators to consider the health care proposal outside of the scope of partisan politics.

“To not participate is to allow your tax dollars, our citizens’ tax dollars to go to other states to help their citizens and not ours,” Breaux said.

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