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Kennedy: Louisiana health secretary should quit after audit

November 14, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — U.S. Sen. John Kennedy called Wednesday on Louisiana’s health secretary to resign after an audit said her agency may have spent as much as $85 million on Medicaid coverage for people who weren’t eligible since Gov. John Bel Edwards expanded the government-financed program.

The Republican senator said Rebekah Gee, an appointee of the Democratic governor, didn’t show respect for taxpayer dollars and shouldn’t be able to maintain her position.

“Actions ought to have consequences. If this was in the private sector, Dr. Gee would have been fired an hour after that report,” said Kennedy, who is considering a run against Edwards in the 2019 election.

Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo dismissed Kennedy’s criticisms as “another one of Sen. Kennedy’s baseless soundbites brought about by having too much free time in Washington.”

The governor has “full confidence” in Gee, Carbo said. He said the Medicaid expansion program under Gee’s watch has cut Louisiana’s uninsured rate in half, and he described new technology the health department launched this week aimed at improving Medicaid eligibility verification.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office says since Edwards expanded the Medicaid program in July 2016, the department has relied on recipients to self-report changes in their paychecks in the 12-month period between the initial application for Medicaid and coverage renewal.

Auditors suggested more frequent checks using available state wage data should be used to ensure Medicaid recipients aren’t earning more than what is allowed to qualify.

Purpera’s office used a random sample of 100 Medicaid recipients in the expansion program, to check if their income exceeded the threshold for eligibility. Projecting those results across the entire expansion population, auditors wrote, suggests the health department spent between $61.6 million and $85.5 million over 20 months on people who weren’t eligible for coverage.

“The Department of Health just threw the money in the dirt,” Kennedy said. “It is difficult for me to overstate how stunning I found this audit report. Everyone involved should hide their head in a bag.”

The health department said it follows a federally approved verification plan for checking Medicaid recipients’ income when a person applies for the program and renews coverage yearly. But Gee said her department’s new computer system to double-check eligibility will connect with state and federal databases to have real-time verification of citizenship, income and disability information. If anyone is found to have intentionally misrepresented income levels, that information will be sent to law enforcement agencies for possible prosecution, the agency said.

“This administration is increasing income verification checks by 400 percent, which will address the long-term problem described in the audit,” Carbo said.

More than 480,000 working poor and other nonelderly adults in Louisiana are enrolled in Medicaid through the expansion program. Adults ages 19 to 64 with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $16,750 for a single adult or $28,680 for a family of three — are eligible for the coverage.

The federal government is paying most of the Medicaid expansion cost. Louisiana is paying a share that eventually increases to 10 percent. Lawmakers passed financing tools to help cover the state’s costs, including a tax hike charged on health maintenance organizations.

While Kennedy criticized the Edwards administration’s management of Medicaid expansion, he didn’t advocate for the program to be discontinued, saying it’s become entrenched in the state.

“The Medicaid program has been expanded in Louisiana,” he said. “We will never go back.”

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

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