Gov. John Bel Edwards laid out his defense for Louisiana's Medicaid expansion Thursday by having a handful of the 378,000 people receiving the insurance coverage describe the medical care they've received, even as Republicans in Congress work to dismantle the federal law that created the program.
Monika Calderon, 23, had suffered with severe, debilitating headaches that were diagnosed as a brain tumor indicating an aggressive type of cancer. On the advice of a social worker, the uninsured college student applied for Medicaid expansion, and the program covered the cost of her surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
"I didn't know what a big deal it was. I didn't know it would cover so much," Calderon said. "It was overwhelming when we learned that Medicaid had paid for everything."
On Thursday, the last day of her treatments, she hoped to be healthy enough to return to college by summer to finish her music degree at the University of New Orleans.
Ricky Miles, 51, of Metairie, enrolled in the Medicaid expansion in July. A month later, abdominal pain sent him to a doctor, and a colonoscopy diagnosed cancer. The expansion program pays for medicine and chemotherapy.
"I'm doing a lot better," Miles said. "I've got Medicaid. I've got great health insurance."
Calderon and Miles stood with the Democratic governor at University Medical Center in New Orleans to praise the Medicaid expansion — even as Congress took the first steps this week to repeal the law championed by President Barack Obama.
"Hopefully, people around our state will gain a fuller appreciation of how important this Medicaid expansion is," Edwards said.
Thursday was the one-year anniversary of Edwards' issuance of an executive order that started the creation of Medicaid expansion in Louisiana, the first Deep South state to participate. Coverage began July 1 for the thousands who signed up, mainly the working poor.
Edwards hopes any federal health law replacement in Washington will allow those people to continue receiving services.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, a doctor involved in congressional Republicans' efforts to repeal and replace Obama's health care law, said he doesn't expect people to lose insurance coverage through whatever emerges from Washington. He said the law has been a failure, driving up costs and not delivering on its promises.
"We're trying to move as much power to the patient, as much power to the state capitols, not have Washington, D.C., dictate care," Cassidy said.
The Louisiana Department of Health said more than 50,000 Medicaid expansion patients have received preventive care visits since gaining coverage. The agency said 63 women have been diagnosed with breast cancer, 959 people are being treated for diabetes and 1,200 patients had precancerous polyps removed after colonoscopies.
Louisiana was the 31st state to expand its Medicaid program. Adults ages 19 to 64 with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $33,500 for a family of four — are eligible for the coverage.
The federal government is picking up most of the cost of the Medicaid expansion. The Edwards administration said Louisiana saved $184 million in this year's budget by tapping into enhanced federal financing rates for coverage it already provided to the poor and uninsured.
But Edwards said his decision to expand Medicaid wasn't about the savings, but about the chance to offer health coverage to people without insurance.
Unintentionally emphasizing the point, 55-year-old Phyllis Lea, a Medicaid expansion patient who attended Thursday's event, collapsed as officials were praising the program. Officials said doctors treated Lea for dehydration from chemotherapy for the ovarian cancer discovered since she's been a Medicaid patient.