BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's legislative auditor would be able to use people's state income tax returns to check Medicaid eligibility, if senators agree to a proposal that won passage Thursday from House lawmakers.
The measure from Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican, triggered strong feelings during House debate.
Supporters, largely Republican, tout the bill as a way to combat Medicaid fraud and make sure money is spent wisely in a program that makes up nearly half of Louisiana's operating budget.
"If we can't tell the taxpayers of this state that we have ensured the integrity of the tax dollars they send down ... we just cannot in good conscience look them in the eye and say, 'Give us more of your hard-earned dollars,'" Bacala said.
Democratic critics slammed the measure as targeting the poor. They questioned why, if the proposal was such a good idea, the auditor shouldn't be able to see tax records for anyone who gets some form of state aid. And they suggested it's an improper use of private tax data.
Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, called the proposal "outrageous."
"This legislation opens for examination by the government the tax records of working people," he said.
A 59-30 House vote sent the measure to the Senate for debate.
GOP lawmakers are pushing a package of anti-Medicaid fraud bills.
Bacala 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. He said "there is strong evidence that the program has not been effective" in confirming the income claims of people who applied for Medicaid.
But in an analysis done for the task force, the revenue department said the tax returns alone wouldn't be enough to properly determine if someone meets the eligibility standards for Medicaid, calling it "a quintessential apples-to-oranges approach."
Rep. Barbara Norton, a Shreveport Democrat, said the proposal was unwarranted.
"I feel that this bill and what it would do is unfair to those who have nothing," Norton said.
Rep. Dodie Horton, a Haughton Republican, rejected Norton's suggestion that the measure was directed at the poor: "Why would the poor have to commit fraud for Medicaid? Don't they already qualify?"
During committee review of the proposal, 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. However, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said the tax data would give his agency "an additional tool" in its audits of the Medicaid program for lawmakers.