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Gov. John Bel Edwards shakes hands in January 2016 with his health care transition team co-chairs, Gary Wiltz, CEO of Teche Action Clinic, and Ronald A. Goux, president of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, at the State Capitol after Edwards signed his his first executive order to provide for Medicaid expansion in the state of Louisiana.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration marked the third anniversary of Medicaid expansion taking effect in Louisiana by touting a new study that found access to health care has improved for people taking advantage of the health insurance program.

The study, which was funded by the Louisiana Department of Health and conducted by Tulane University researchers, found improvements in access to medical care, utilization and provider participation. Fewer people are unable to see a doctor or are not taking their medication as prescribed because of the expansion of Medicaid, researchers found. 

The report is part of a broader examination Tulane is doing on Medicaid expansion, including its economic impact.

Low-income adults making less than 138% of the federal poverty line – about $34,638 annually for family of four – became eligible for the government-sponsored health insurance in 2016 after Edwards expanded the program. Nearly half a million people are currently enrolled in the expansion.

Edwards has frequently touted Medicaid expansion as a top accomplishment as governor, crediting the expansion with keeping rural hospitals from closing in Louisiana, bucking a trend throughout the U.S. South. The governor has repeatedly played up the Medicaid expansion on the campaign trail as he runs for reelection this year.

At St. Bernard Parish Hospital on Wednesday, Edwards and health officials described the new study as the latest evidence that Medicaid expansion is making the state healthier and providing access to care to people who previously could not get it.

“These are real-life results for people in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “Our brothers and sisters here are no longer having to put off going to the doctor.”

The study found the number of low-income adults in Louisiana who reported they were unable to see a doctor fell by 4.2 percentage points as a result of Medicaid expansion. The number of people reporting they did not take a medication as prescribed fell by 6.9 percentage points.

While provider participation increased after enrollment, it has dipped recently, the researchers found. The average distance traveled to seek care fell initially but has also ticked up recently.

More than 505,000 people in Louisiana enrolled in Medicaid expansion at its peak, in April. Since then, amid a new wage check system for enrollees, the number has fallen to about 454,000.

Republicans and right-leaning groups like the Pelican Institute have criticized the Edwards administration for its handling of Medicaid expansion amid audits that found some people were enrolled even though they weren’t eligible. Since LDH implemented a new wage verification system that checks enrollees’ wages more frequently, about 51,000 people have lost coverage.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com