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From left, State Medicaid Director Jen Steele and LDH Secretary Rebekah Gee talk about the state's new high-tech enrollment system at the Medicaid enrollment headquarters Wednesday Nov. 28, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

WASHINGTON — A Louisiana congressman and political rival of Gov. John Bel Edwards is seeking a federal probe into whether the Edwards administration misspent taxpayer dollars to misrepresent the impact of Medicaid expansion in the state.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, an Alto Republican running against Democrat Edwards for governor this fall, alleged there is "reason to believe" LDH violated federal law "by using federal dollars to commission and distribute a study that contained findings that are deliberately false and misleading."

Abraham claims a study LSU researchers conducted on the economic impact of Medicaid expansion omitted information about people who already benefited from subsidized health care, allowing it to be artificially inflated and "may have been deliberately false." LDH paid LSU for the study.

The Edwards administration referred a request for comment to the Edwards re-election campaign.

"This is another sad stunt from Rep. Abraham's failing campaign, but now he's stooping to a new low by using his official office to lob a transparent campaign attack," Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Holl said. "Ralph Abraham is last in Congressional vote attendance. He needs to focus on his job and not on using his official office to attack his campaign opponents."

"If Ralph Abraham wants to attack LSU and Louisiana's most respected economist for political reasons, he shouldn't use taxpayer resources to do it," Holl added.

LSU didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations Abraham makes against its researchers, including economist Jim Richardson, who has often performed economic analyses for the state.

Sam Bentley, LSU's vice president for research and economic development, said in a written response: "LSU is designated as an ‘R-1: Doctoral university – very high research activity’ in the Carnegie Higher Education Classification, and as such our researchers adhere to all federal guidelines and university policies that promote integrity in research, as well as provide transparency and objectivity throughout the research process. We are proud of our achievements in research, and of our faculty. In addition to the value of knowledge that comes from our research, our researchers bring hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to our local economy each year.”

Abraham's letter to the federal government watchdog is an escalation of the ongoing campaign feud between Abraham and Edwards, who is seeking a second term in office. Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, of Baton Rouge, also is running for governor.

"I have every reason to believe that LDH commissioned a bad report to mislead the public about how their tax dollars are being used. The people of Louisiana deserve an answer, and it is clear that we cannot trust LDH to regulate itself. The Inspector General needs to investigate and get to the bottom of this,” Abraham said in a statement.

The election is Oct. 12. A Nov. 16 runoff will take place if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the first round.

As Abraham's congressional office released his OIG letter to the media Thursday, Abraham was in Louisiana appearing at campaign forums alongside Edwards.

The "Medicaid Expansion and the Louisiana Economy" analysis released last year concludes that Edwards' expansion of the Medicaid health care program in 2016 had allowed the creation or retention of nearly 19,200 jobs and generated nearly $3.6 billion in economic activity for the state of Louisiana.

More than 500,000 people have enrolled in Medicaid since Edwards signed an executive order expanding the program through an optional portion of the federal Affordable Care Act. That number has dipped slightly since the Department of Health completed an upgrade of its enrollment system.

The governor this week marked the third anniversary of the expansion by unveiling a new study on it that found improved access to health care. The second study was conducted by Tulane and paid for by LDH. It is one part of a larger analysis Tulane is conducting on the impact of the expansions.

Edwards has often touted Medicaid expansion among his proudest accomplishments as governor, but it's been a lightning rod for his Republican opponents, though the GOP hasn't made any serious attempts to reverse the action legislatively.

Under the expansion, adults whose household income falls below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $16,600 a year for a single person or $33,900 annually for a family of four, can get health care coverage from the government-funded program.

The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, this week raised questions about whether the Medicaid study was flawed because LSU's researchers didn't subtract subsidies people received when they purchased insurance on the government-run exchange when calculating the new federal dollars that would flow to the state after expansion.

That's the crux of the issues raised in Abraham's letter to the OIG.

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.