NORFOLK -- Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe isn't giving up on Medicaid expansion, despite rapidly changing dynamics in the General Assembly which seem to be dooming the proposal.
"I'm still hopeful," said McAuliffe, hours before the newly reconfigured legislature was scheduled to convene in Richmond. With the sudden resignation Monday of Senator Phil Puckett (D-Russell), the Republican Party now controls the Senate, as well as the House of Delegates. And it is widely expected that by day's end both chambers will have passed a state budget which does not include expanding Medicaid.
"Obviously I'm disappointed Phil Puckett resigned, the manner in which he resigned," said McAuliffe. "But listen, this is life. I'm fighting for those 400,000 folks who are desperately in need of health care, will create 30,000 new jobs. And I want everyone to understand that we have paid those dollars in. We have the right to bring back 100 percent of that money back to Virginia. We have forfeited over $808 million as of today. Could you imagine what we could do with $808 million running through the economy?"
But now, the Republicans enjoy a 20-19 advantage in the Senate, along with a 68-32 advantage in the House. And the GOP-dominated House is firmly opposed to expanding Medicaid. The disagreement has led to a budget standoff that could trigger a government shutdown if it is not resolved before the start of the new fiscal year, July 1, a prospect considered less likely now that Puckett has gone.
In an interview, House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) explained his caucus' continued reluctance to expand Medicaid. "This is a $2 billion a year new entitlement," he said. "Is it something we're ready to embark on? I'm not sure."
"Yeah, other states are doing it," Howell continued. "A lot of states are not doing it. I can give you a host of reasons. The biggest problem with expanding Medicaid is the existing Medicaid is a broken system. What the governor is suggesting is, we take this broken system of almost a million people, 900,000 people, and we drop another 400,000 people in top of it."
Howell and other House leaders have insisted that Medicaid be "un-coupled" from the overall state budget, so that lawmakers can study Medicaid more closely. "We will come back and give Medicaid expansion a fair hearing," he promised.
Additionally, any budget passed going forward will not include Marketplace Virginia, a private insurance plan proposed as an alternative to expanding Medicare under the Affordable Care Act. Backers of that idea have now withdrawn it.