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Courtney Phillips, Louisiana's new Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, speaks at Governor John Bel Edwards' regular press conference to update Louisiana's status during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, at the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge. Dr. Jimmy Guidry, M.D., State Health Officer of Louisiana and La. Dept. of Health's Medical Director, is at right.

Louisiana’s Medicaid rolls have grown by nearly 60,000 people since March, officials said Wednesday, part of a federal directive aimed at keeping people on the government-sponsored health care amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of a law passed by Congress in March, the federal government boosted its funding to states for Medicaid, which resulted in $190 million more coming to Louisiana, which helped the state balance its budget as revenues plummeted.

In exchange for that money, which comes in the form of an increased Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP), Louisiana and other states can’t kick people off Medicaid unless they die, request to end their coverage or permanently move out of state.

“We are seeing growth in enrollment due to this federal legislation,” Medicaid Director Ruth Johnson said in a statement. “The enhanced FMAP is designed to cover the cost for members whose coverage would have closed without the protection from this legislation.”

That’s a sharp turnaround from the state’s previous policy. Last year, the Louisiana Department of Health began using a stricter enrollment system that more frequently checked the wages of those on Medicaid expansion, a part of the Affordable Care Act put in place by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards that extended coverage to nearly half a million people. That new program led to tens of thousands losing coverage.

In all, enrollment in both traditional Medicaid and the expansion has increased by more than 58,000 from March through the end of May, Health Department Undersecretary Cindy Rives told lawmakers in a budget hearing Wednesday. About 64,000 people would have been removed from the Medicaid rolls but were not because of the federal legislation, called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Some Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee worry the policy could put the state in a bind financially. The increased funding currently is slated to run through September, but Rives noted it will take months to remove the people from the rolls once the new policy ends.

“We cannot roll that many people off overnight,” Rives said.

The Medicaid expansion was a major campaign issue last fall as Edwards ran for reelection against a Republican Eddie Rispone, who vowed to freeze enrollment in the program. Under the expansion, the federal government has footed the vast majority of the bill for the costs, which Edwards’ administration has touted as a boon to the state budget, as it is more cost-efficient than having the state step in to pay for uninsured people in other ways. Republicans have criticized the program for keeping people on the rolls when they make too much money to qualify.

In March, 472,434 people were on Medicaid expansion, a number that has grown to 505,168 in May – a record high. For traditional Medicaid, 1.13 million were enrolled in March, which has grown by nearly 26,000 as of May.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com