West Bank vital to state’s economy, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards tells business leaders _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during the Governor's West Bank Lunch at The Four Columns in Harvey, La. Friday, April 1, 2016.

Louisiana will begin enrolling people into an expanded Medicaid program on June 1, with benefits starting July 1.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday attended a Senate Health and Welfare Committee hearing to testify about the benefits of expanding Medicaid to cover thousands more Louisiana residents through the federal Affordable Care Act.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Edwards’ administration said 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.

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was critical of President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation, staunchly opposed Louisiana expanding the health care program that mostly serves low-income families and children here and taking advantage of the enhanced federal match rates that came with it.

Edwards, a Democrat, made expansion central to this campaign for governor. On Monday, he said the Jindal administration “took the worst-case scenario on every variable” to make expansion appear bad for the state’s finances.

“We know that we are going to save money,” Edwards said. In the budget that begins July 1, that savings has been estimated at more than $100 million, which can be put toward other state services.

More than 300,000 additional Louisiana residents, mainly the working poor, will be added to the Medicaid rolls under the expansion, based on the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest estimates. Adults who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $33,460 for a family of four — would become eligible.

The federal government will cover 100 percent of the new population this year. The federal share will gradually reduce to 90 percent by 2020, with the state picking up 10 percent of the cost.

Some opponents have argued that the costs could go up for the state if the federal government reneges on that plan, but Edwards dismissed those concerns.

“The law says the federal portion will never be less than 90 percent,” he said. “We know that we are going to save money.”

Edwards, who took office Jan. 11, is expected to travel the state with Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee to encourage Medicaid enrollment in the coming weeks.

“I’m committed to reforming Medicaid and making it better,” Gee told the committee.

Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the duo would be making appearances at application centers to encourage newly eligible people to sign up for Medicaid.

“They’ll also be visiting with folks in the business community and employees at businesses across the state to talk about what expansion means for the budget, our economy and working men and women of our state,” Carbo said.

Edwards signed an executive order his first week on the job to start the Medicaid expansion process.

His attendance at the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Monday was the third time this session that he’s personally attended hearings to push items on his campaign platform. He previously testified in favor of bills that seek to raise the minimum wage and require equal pay for men and women.

The reception to his Medicaid testimony was mostly positive.

“We don’t do a whole lot for the working poor people in this state, and I think this is a major step forward for those folks,” Sen. Jay Luneau said, D-Alexandria.

Edwards said that expanding Medicaid will benefit rural hospitals and help cut down on the amount prisons have to spend on health care and mental health costs to the state.

Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, said people across the country will be watching Louisiana to see how it handles expansion.

Louisiana is the first Deep South state to agree to expand the program through the new opt-in program made available under the federal health care law, frequently referred to as “Obamacare.”

“We can’t fail,” Boudreaux said. “There are some people who do not want this to happen.

“This is an opportunity to serve a segment of our population that’s been ignored.”

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.