- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Republican David Vitter defended his opposition to the federal health care overhaul Friday even as the candidate for governor told an audience supportive of the law that he’d consider tapping into its Medicaid expansion provisions.

The comments came at a forum in north Baton Rouge by Together Louisiana, a faith-based group that advocates for low- and moderate-income residents. Both Vitter and his Democratic opponent John Bel Edwards answered questions about poverty, Medicaid expansion and the state’s budget woes as they sought votes for their Nov. 21 runoff.

Edwards, a state representative who unsuccessfully tried to get legislative backing for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana, received applause for saying as governor he’d immediately expand the program to provide government-funded health insurance to the working poor.

“I believe we should bring our federal tax dollars back to Louisiana, to help us meet our obligations to our people when they allow us to save money in the process especially, and certainly that includes Medicaid expansion,” he said.

Vitter, a U.S. senator, described his continued opposition to the federal health revamp, before saying he’d consider the coverage expansion if he can negotiate a state-specific program with the federal government.

“I hope you appreciate a direct, honest answer and exchange. I disagree with a great majority of the folks in this room and with John Bel Edwards,” Vitter said. “I think on balance Obamacare set us back and created more problems than it solved.”

He described people losing previous insurance coverage and recent price spikes reported for people in Louisiana who pay for health insurance through the federal marketplace.

“Where we are now is facing a law that’s on the books and the issue of Medicaid expansion. I said from the beginning of the campaign, I would not rule it out. But I would only do it on solid, sound Louisiana-terms, not on the federal government’s terms,” Vitter said.

He said he’d want a plan structured like a private insurance model, and he’d want to include a work requirement for coverage - though federal officials have rejected that in other states.

Edwards said Louisiana’s Medicaid program already has been transformed into a private insurance model, and he said the people who would be eligible for the expansion already are working, which is why they aren’t eligible for Medicaid currently.

On other issues, Vitter called making sure every child in Louisiana has the opportunity for a good school “the top civil rights issue of our time,” as he touted the state’s voucher program and charter schools.

Asked to present plans to combat Louisiana’s 21 percent poverty rate, Edwards said he’d work to double a tax credit for the working poor and seek to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage if Congress doesn’t raise the federal level.

“If you get up and go to work today, you should not live in poverty,” he said.

Vitter said he’d “focus like a laser beam” on skills training and other education programs to combat poverty. He said the state has many good-paying jobs available, but too few trained workers to fill them.

“We need to bridge that gap,” Vitter said.

Earlier in the day, each candidate announced new endorsements in the race. The Louisiana State Troopers Association is backing Edwards, joining a prior law enforcement endorsement from the sheriffs’ association. Meanwhile, Vitter got the support of the Family Research Council, a conservative national organization led by former state Rep. Tony Perkins.

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