Why is Louisiana's Medicaid expansion so important?

President Obama visited Louisiana on Thursday after Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Medicaid expansion legislation into law. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama gestures as he speaks during a town hall at McKinley Senior High School in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. After giving his State of the Union address, the president is traveling to tout progress and goals in his final year in office.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards recently signed controversial Medicaid expansion legislation into law. President Obama visited Louisiana on Thursday in hopes that Medicaid's success there will spur other conservative states to consider the plan. 

Governor Edwards (D) signed Medicaid expansion legislation on Tuesday, his first day in office. He has long been a proponent of the Medicare expansion, which he believes will help Louisiana counter its wellness woes. 

“We are consistently ranked one of the poorest and unhealthiest states," announced Edwards, "and this cycle will not be broken as long as anyone in Louisiana has to choose between their health and their financial security."

Louisiana is, in fact, ranked 50th out of 50 states on health and wellness rankings, according to the United Health Foundation. The state has high levels of obesity, a smoking problem, and a high percentage of children in poverty. In the past five years, the percentage of children in poverty has risen to 33 percent of the state's population. That same time range saw Medicaid funding per person decrease by 33 percent. 

The expansion plan, which extends Medicaid coverage eligibility to all with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty level, will grant 300,000 Louisiana residents access to health care on July 1. 

Edwards is one of the only liberal governors in the South, and the first Deep South governor to pass the Medicaid expansion. Only nineteen states have chosen not to expand Medicaid. 

Why is Louisiana the first state of its kind to accept the Medicaid expansion?

Despite his passage of Louisiana's Medicaid expansion, Edwards is an odd duck amongst Democrats. He opposes abortion and gun control, two stereotypically liberal issues, but supports equal pay, LGBT rights, and food stamp programs. 

When New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson wrote about Edwards' victory in November, he said that, "A more promising red state Democrat could hardly have been found." 

Edwards' predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal, vigorously opposed the Medicaid expansion during his tenure as governor. His policies were in line with other Deep South politicians. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for example, refuses to sign Medicaid expansion legislation that would grant healthcare coverage to 1.25 million Florida residents. 

In his final State of the Union address, Obama emphasized the importance of universal health care coverage. Like Edwards, Obama stressed the importance of universal healthcare in preventing people from slipping into poverty, saying "that's why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever; we shouldn't weaken them, we should strengthen them."

Obama chose to visit Louisiana on Thursday to encourage other conservative states to do what Louisiana did on Tuesday. According to The New York Times, Republican legislators in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska are considering the Medicaid expansion. 

The president plans to offer an additional incentive to states that extend Medicaid eligibility under his proposed 2017 budget. Any state that expands Medicaid would receive three years of federal funding for the program. After three years, states that join would be liable for 10 percent of Medicaid costs each year. 

Edwards's commitment to Medicaid expansion pushed the number of Medicaid-eligible Americans who live in states that have accepted the expansion to over 50 percent.

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