BATON ROUGE — Nursing home eviction notice warnings to be sent Thursday are likely to create a panic among the 37,000 Louisianans and their families who could be victims of the state's budget crisis.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief financial officer said the state was compelled to warn those affected, though not legally bound to do so at a specific time.
"I agree it's going to be alarming, but it's the responsible thing to do," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who said the warnings allow those affected to seek other options and the state to explore whether they may qualify for other assistance.
Department of Health Secretary Rebekah Gee became emotional during the press conference, saying through tears, "These are real people. We know their stories."
"Our hearts are breaking, but we can't provide services without money," Gee said.
But Republican lawmakers said sending the letters now is premature and a political stunt by Edwards, a Democrat, to pressure the Legislature to raise taxes.
"This is the lowest of the low in my 45 years of public service, and it's started a panic that's unnecessary; calls are pouring into our offices," said Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro. "This is nothing more than a political maneuver and an ugly one for folks at the most vulnerable time of their lives."
House Republicans held a press conference Wednesday afternoon with Rep. Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, saying the governor is needlessly "striking fear into the elderly of our state."
Henry, chairman of Appropriations Committee that crafts the budget, said sending the letters now "is premature at best and reckless at worst."
Dardenne dismissed the criticism, saying, "This letter is scary, but it's not a tactic."
"We're allowing people as much time as possible to plan," Gee said.
Even those generally aligned with the governor acknowledge the impact of the letters. "People are going to be frantic," Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said during a Senate committee hearing.
Those who will be warned they could lose their Medicaid coverage include about 20,000 nursing home residents, 10,000 other long-term care residents with developmental disabilities and 7,000 who have provisional Medicaid insurance.
Next year's budget begins July 1, which is when the evictions could technically begin.
The budget passed by the House and sent to the Senate contains deep cuts to health care because of a shortfall of between $550 million and $648 million, depending on who's doing the calculations.
Next year's shortfall was created because about $1.4 billion in temporary taxes expire June 30. The bulk of the expiring taxes, about $880 million, comes from a one-cent sales tax.
Edwards wants lawmakers to mitigate the cuts with new permanent taxes in a special session, but the Legislature declined to raise any new taxes in a February special session.
"This is an unfortunate, inevitable consequence of inaction (by the Legislature)," Dardenne said.
State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said she believes the timing of the notices are prudent.
"There's an imminent threat," she said. "The Legislature convened a special session once earlier this year to remedy this problem, but it failed to do so.
"This is the reality that we face when we fail to act appropriately for the good of the people of this state. It is my sincere hope and prayer that the Legislature will convene another special session to remedy this issue and the many other issues that will cripple the people of this state if they are not addressed."
Nursing home and group home operators said the possibility of eviction is unthinkable.
"This is our cry for help," said Laurie Boswell, chief executive of Holy Angels in Shreveport, said during a Senate committee hearing. "There is no place for them to go."
"Our residents require 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week care to eat, toilet and bathe," said Mark Berger, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association. "They can't go home."
Gee said the department will expand hours at its call center to answer questions from residents who will receive the letters.
Call center representatives are available from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday immediately. The number is 1-888-342-6207.
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1