BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A proposal to let Louisiana’s legislative auditor see people’s state income tax returns to check Medicaid eligibility sparked strong disagreements Wednesday among House lawmakers over whether the proposal unfairly targets the poor.
Supporters, who are largely Republican, describe the proposal as an anti-fraud initiative, aimed at saving taxpayer dollars on a pricey health care program. Critics say the bill would be an improper use of private tax information that puts the data at risk, and Democrats said it vilifies low-income people.
The proposal, backed by House GOP leaders and sponsored by Rep. Tony Bacala, started advancing Thursday, winning support from a divided House Health and Welfare Committee. The vote was 8-3, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.
Bacala, a Prairieville Republican, said a legislatively created task force reviewing ways to combat Medicaid fraud and waste recommended the auditor compare the tax records against Medicaid eligibility decisions, to determine if people were improperly enrolled in the program.
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“We really need to tighten this up,” Bacala said.
The bill also would require the state health department to use tax return data to help determine if someone is eligible for Medicaid on the front end of the process — a provision expected to cost the agency money to hire new workers to do the tax data review.
House Democratic leader Robert Johnson questioned why only Medicaid recipients were targeted for review. He said the state also should review the tax records and publicly disclose the companies that receive billions in tax breaks from the state.
“I really don’t understand the spirit of this. It’s like we’re picking on poor people,” said Johnson, of Marksville.
Rep. Dodie Horton, a Haughton Republican, said she didn’t understand why anyone would object to making sure Louisiana tax dollars were spent properly. She said taxpayers deserve to know “the dollars are going to the people who truly need it.”
Horton rejected claims that the measure targeted the poor: “Poor people don’t have to cheat. They qualify” for Medicaid.
Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat, said she’d support the bill if income tax data also was provided to the legislative auditor to cross-check eligibility for “other people who receive benefits from the state,” like recipients of TOPS college tuition aid and tax break programs.
“I don’t want to single out people because they are indigent,” she said.
The bill also will require review from the House budget committee before it can head to the full House for consideration.
Bacala said Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office already can look at income tax data for other audits, but not for checking Medicaid eligibility.
The revenue department suggested the tax returns alone wouldn’t be enough to properly determine if someone meets the eligibility standards for Medicaid.
Jeff Reynolds, chief financial officer for the health department, said his agency has access to the tax records and eligibility workers determined several years ago that the data wasn’t valuable to conclude if a person met the requirements for Medicaid.
Purpera said the tax data would give his agency “an additional tool” in its audits of the Medicaid program for lawmakers.
A similar Bacala proposal won House support during the February special session as part of broader negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over tax proposals, but never won Senate passage once the tax talks collapsed.
House Bill 480: www.legis.la.gov
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