- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to hire new health department employees for his Medicaid expansion effort was pulled Friday from legislative consideration as the new governor’s administration works to sell Republicans on the idea.

The Department of Health and Hospitals wants to add 248 new workers to handle enrollment of the thousands of people expected to qualify for Medicaid under an eligibility expansion.

The joint House and Senate budget committee was scheduled to consider the hiring plan at its first meeting since Edwards took office earlier this month. The vote, from the majority Republican committee, was expected to be the first test of whether GOP lawmakers will try to create roadblocks for the Democratic governor’s expansion plan.

But instead, the item was removed from the agenda.

Edwards’ chief financial adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, said Friday morning the request was delayed because the administration didn’t have enough time to speak with individual committee members about the details of the hiring plan.

The House’s committee members weren’t named until late Thursday, fewer than 24 hours before the meeting.

“We want to have a little more time to explain everything and make sure everybody understands,” Dardenne said.

He said the administration expects to ask for approval in February. Dardenne said the decision to postpone wasn’t a reaction to learning that House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, had packed the House’s budget committee with more than two-thirds GOP members.

“But we obviously are cognizant of what that committee now looks like,” he said.

Hiring of the enrollment workers will help determine whether Edwards can achieve what he admits is an aggressive timeline, of having government-funded health insurance cards in more people’s hands by July 1.

Rep. Cameron Henry, chairman of the House budget committee, said several members had questions about the financing to pay for 248 new state employees and the possible long-term costs for a state awash in financial problems.

“We need to make sure we can afford to do that,” he said.

Henry, R-Metairie, also acknowledged the hiring discussion was part of a broader debate of whether Louisiana should be expanding its Medicaid program. He said a number of Republican lawmakers have concerns about expansion.

“This is one piece of a bigger puzzle,” he said. “We have to make sure we have a consensus” on whether to expand Medicaid.

The new workers would cost $10.3 million this budget year for salaries, benefits, training and equipment, according to information provided to the committee, with $7.3 million paid by the federal government.

The remaining $3 million price tag, under the Edwards administration proposal, would be paid by health care providers, like hospitals and clinics, who would have the health department employees working on site at their facilities to enroll patients at the places they seek care.

It’s unclear how long health care providers would pay the state’s employee costs.

Federal officials signed off on the staffing proposal this week, Dardenne said. Louisiana hasn’t previously used the method.

Medicaid expansion is allowed under President Barack Obama’s federal health law, but former Gov. Bobby Jindal and Republican state lawmakers previously blocked Louisiana from participating.

Edwards made Medicaid expansion a key campaign pledge. He issued an executive order starting the process to make Louisiana the 31st state to expand its Medicaid program on his second day as governor.

The Edwards administration estimates that more than 300,000 additional people, mainly the working poor, will be added to Louisiana’s Medicaid program under the expansion, which covers adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level - about $33,400 for a family of four.

The federal government will pick up the full cost of health services under a Medicaid expansion for a short period of time. Louisiana will later have to pay a share, eventually growing to 10 percent of the cost.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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