BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's health department is notifying 37,000 elderly and disabled people, many of them in nursing homes, that the money paying for their care could dry up in July. Republicans slammed the move as fear-mongering by the state's Democratic governor amid ongoing budget and tax negotiations.
The notices, going out Thursday, are Louisiana's first official warning to residents of nursing homes and group homes that they could face eviction in less than two months because of proposed Medicaid spending cuts included in the House-backed version of next year's budget.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration has said for months the notices would be sent because lawmakers haven't replaced temporary taxes that expire July 1. Administration officials said they need to send the letters so people have time to make alternative plans for family members' care. The regulatory process to make the cuts began this week.
"Our hearts are breaking over the need to do this," Health Secretary Rebekah Gee said Wednesday. "However, we cannot provide services with no money to pay for them. We simply cannot."
More than 80 percent of the state's nursing home residents, nearly 19,000 people, are at risk of displacement, according to the health department.
Republican lawmakers panned the letters as a premature move, creating unnecessary anxiety for Louisiana's most fragile residents, while budget and tax talks continue and the cuts are uncertain.
"The decision by the governor and this administration to give eviction notices to the elderly population of Louisiana, without question, is a political move. It's egregious in my personal opinion," said House GOP leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria. "We don't even know what the Senate is going to do yet."
Harris called the letters "an unnecessary, political scare tactic."
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, said of the criticism: "This letter is scary, but it's not a tactic."
The House-backed version of next year's budget would close a gap caused by expiring taxes by cutting $431 million in general state tax dollars from the health department. The cut would grow to an estimated $1.6 billion or more with the loss of federal matching dollars.
The Senate is crafting its version of a spending plan for next year, but senators have said their choices are grim. The state is expected to bring in $648 million less in general state tax dollars next year, and health care and education programs are the most vulnerable to cuts.
Edwards intends to call a special session later this month, hoping lawmakers will agree to pass replacement taxes to fill budget gaps and stave off the health cuts. But a prior special session in February ended with no tax deal amid partisan disputes in the House, creating uncertainty about whether tax measures will pass before the new budget year begins.
Lawmakers said news of the letters is prompting phone calls, emails and social media messages from people worried about their loved ones.
"I do think it's a pressure tactic. I think it does raise a sense of urgency," said Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican who called release of the letters premature. "I am confident that in the end we will sufficiently fund the health care needs of our elderly, the indigent and the infirm."
The programs targeted for cuts are among the Medicaid spending areas considered "optional." A state doesn't have to maintain those programs to continue participating in and receiving federal financing for Medicaid. Federal approval is needed to cut the spending.
The letter says the health department will determine if the recipients qualify for services under another portion of the Medicaid program. But health officials said Wednesday they weren't optimistic a majority of the thousands receiving letters will be eligible for other assistance.
The Department of Health has extended its call center hours to respond to questions and concerns.