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Reports on Louisiana politics, government and the people shaping state policy

Louisiana lawmakers regret passing budget with last-minute $100 million cut to health care

Sue Lincoln

Louisiana lawmakers are regretting a last-minute $100 million reduction to health care in the new state budget, including some who helped negotiate and pass the budget on a chaotic final day of session. Republicans and Democrats on a Senate committee are now asking for the cut to be vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has already said he will use every means at his disposal to eliminate or minimize the cut.

The Louisiana Department of Health operates a $20 billion budget, so a $100 million cut might not seem significant. Several lawmakers have said the department has the ability to absorb the cut without sacrificing much in health care services.

But as health officials and lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee pointed out on Tuesday, the $100 million cut could result in a loss of up to $800 million because of federal matching dollars attached to the areas in the health care budget that would be cut. Federal matching dollars comprise more than 70% of the state health care budget.

The areas that could be cut under the $100 million reduction are limited. Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Stephen Russo told lawmakers on the committee that mental health services and elderly care would likely suffer substantial losses under the reduction.

A potential $31 million cut to community behavioral health services would actually amount to a loss of about $415 million, health officials said. That would impact 211,000 substance use disorder and mental health care recipients, including children.

“These are not games,” Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, said. “People in this state will die.”

Russo said several areas facing potential cuts, like adult prescription drugs, could lead to more emergency room visits and cost the state the same amount or more money than it would save. Those expenses would just fall under a different line item, like hospital services, Russo said.

Lawmakers on the committee emphasized how the cuts will affect real people. Chairman Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, recalled how difficult it was to make similar cuts in previous years.

“I think that the 144 members, if these cuts are implemented, they better be ready for their phones to ring,” Mills said. “And it’s not going to be a social issue. It’s going to be a real issue. It’s going to be issues of ‘let me tell you how this impacts my child.’”

Three representatives and three senators negotiated a final budget behind closed doors on the last day of session when they made the last-minute cut to health care. The $100 million reduction came as a shock to most lawmakers and Edwards, who called the cut “ridiculous” amid the state’s $2.2 billion surplus.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, was one of the six lawmakers who helped negotiate a final budget. He said on Tuesday he regrets voting for the budget bills without knowing what was included in them.

“We did some things that should never have been done, especially when you have surpluses like this,” White said. “And I take part responsibility. I signed that conference committee report with two minutes to go before 6 p.m., but I didn’t have much time, and I had no idea what was in it.”

White and other lawmakers on the budget conference committee released their compromise with only a half-hour left in the session. That’s when most lawmakers and health officials say they first became aware of the health care cut.

“On my way home, I got a call saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been cut $100 million in state general fund,’” Russo said. “I thought it was a joke.”

The Legislature passed the budget bills without awareness of the impact of the health care cut and without knowledge of several other changes and their impact. Several House lawmakers were shouting at the speaker in confusion and frustration over a lack of time to review changes.

“I should have returned the bill to the calendar and went into special session,” White said. “It was a quick judgment call, and I made the wrong judgment.”

Edwards is the only person who can make amends to the budget bills at this point. He can use his line-item veto power on the budget bills, and all budget bills must pass this month. If Edwards vetoes any bills, the Legislature can choose to hold a special veto session to try to override them, or lawmakers can accept the governor’s vetoes.

Molly Ryan is a political reporter and covers state politics from the Louisiana Capitol.