Louisiana will use information collected from food stamps recipients to potentially add tens of thousands of people to the state’s Medicaid rolls as the sign-up period for the newly-expanded program begins.

Enrollment kicks off Wednesday for people who qualify for Medicaid under increased income limits now set for the health care program that has traditionally served the poor and children in Louisiana.

Louisiana is the 31st state in the country to embrace Medicaid expansion, one of the key provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, but it’s the first state to receive approval from the federal government to link enrollment and eligibility to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

“Surprisingly, no other state has done this,” said Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee. “We’re trying to be efficient in how we use state employees and state resources.”

More than 300,000 additional Louisiana residents, mainly the working poor, will receive health insurance through Medicaid under the expansion, according to estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Adults who make below 138 percent of federal poverty level — about $33,500 a year for a family of four or $16,200 for a single adult — are among the newly-eligible population.

That is the same level as most people who receive food stamps in Louisiana. Now, when people sign up for SNAP benefits or re-enroll, their information will also be checked for Medicaid eligibility and automatic enrollment.

State leaders say they viewed linking up the programs as a good way for the state to quickly bolster its Medicaid program. Louisiana has one of the nation’s highest rates of residents who have no health care coverage.

“We know so much about that population and who is entitled to it,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “We know which ones can be enrolled immediately because (food stamps) was set at 138 percent under a previous administration.”

State leaders estimate that some 105,000 food stamps recipients will now also qualify for Medicaid insurance.

DHH plans to send enrollment cards to food stamps recipients this week to alert them to the new quick methods of Medicaid enrollment, said Ruth Kennedy, the former state Medicaid director who has been working on the rollout of Medicaid expansion.

Those recipients will then be able to call or fill out the “canary yellow” forms to quickly sign up for coverage.

“We believe it’s going to be a major way to get people enrolled instantly,” Kennedy said.

The plan to link SNAP and Medicaid is the first of its kind in the nation — an idea that Gee said largely was borne of need as the state wrestles with a nearly $600 million budget shortfall in the coming year.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and we just were not going to be able to get the state employees we would otherwise need,” she said. “We’re trying to be efficient in how we use state resources.”

Under Medicaid expansion through the ACA, the federal government picks up at least 90 percent of the tab for the state’s new enrollees. State leaders estimate that expansion will save the state $184 million in the coming year — largely by shifting health care to a more defined program, rather than leaving the uninsured to seek out costlier alternatives.

Edwards’ administration has estimated that the state will save $677 million in its first five years of expanded coverage and $1 billion over the next decade because of the enhanced federal rates for health care.

“It’s a no-brainer from an economic perspective,” Gee said.

But she said the impact on health in Louisiana, a state that typically ranks among the worst on health care indicators like obesity, heart disease and similar factors, remains the biggest test ahead.

“The journey doesn’t end with coverage,” she said. “It starts with coverage.”

She said she hopes that getting the working poor access to coverage will lead to better lifestyles overall.

“There’s no reason to expand Medicaid unless at the end of the day, people are healthier,” Gee said. “Our over-arching goal is improved health.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .