By resigning, Virginia lawmaker Phillip Puckett betrayed his own people

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 9

This summer, hundreds of sick, desperate people will gather daily in the pre-dawn darkness of a Southwestern Virginia parking lot, part of a late July pilgrimage as predictable as the state’s tobacco crop.

They come with festering cancers, rotting teeth, wheezing lungs and aching joints, lining up for hours to see the doctors who arrive with a mobile clinic to deliver health care to the most underserved of America’s poor.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The three-day clinic at the Wise County Fairgrounds is an annual event just three miles outside of the district represented by state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell). Now, if you’re a state senator watching what looks like a refugee camp medical tent, staffed by 800 volunteers who come into your town to perform eye surgery and root canals and remove cysts for about 3,000 of your constituents, who have no health insurance and live on about $14,000 a year, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to help them?

It seems that Puckett has decided that, no, he’s not going to help the people who elected him and who are in dire need of every bit of medical care they can get.

It’s an attitude that has been the norm among a group of heartless Virginia Republicans who have tried every trick in the book to stop the expansion of health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And they appear willing to shut down the Old Dominion’s government this summer over a proposal to cover about 400,000 uninsured Virginians by expanding Medicaid.

Remember, these are people who should receive federal assistance. And to put the ridiculous nature of this debate in even more perspective, if Medicaid expansion is approved, the feds pick up the tab 100 percent for Medicaid for the first three years, eventually scaling back to 90 percent of the tab. Right now, the state goes 50-50 on all Medicaid expenses. Plus, it’s a huge bonus to small businesses, which suddenly get a lot of help in the health insurance department.

Hello, fiscally conservative, business-friendly Republicans? Are you not seeing that this is money in the state’s pockets?

Nope, they would rather play dirty, selfish, stinking politics and continue their Obamacare smear campaign on the backs of vulnerable residents.

And Virginia isn’t the only state denying its own residents health-care coverage. Check out the Kaiser Family Foundation map, which shows you 19 states that won’t even take one step forward on Medicaid expansion.

It’s gotten so ugly that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has been meeting with state constitutional attorneys to see whether he can torque Virginia laws enough to do an end run around the legislature.

And here’s a twist no one expected. It’s a Democrat, an ally of the expansion, who is tanking it. Puckett was one of the 20 Democrats and three Republicans supporting Medicaid expansion and said in a statement Monday that “it is my heartfelt prayer that the General Assembly will be able to close the gap for healthcare coverage for all Virginians.”

And heck, why wouldn’t he? At least 20,170 of the state’s uninsured live in his district, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

After years of taking the bulk of his campaign money from the mining industry, wouldn’t it be fair that Puckett help all those people whose bodies have been broken working in Virginia’s coal mines by freeing up the health care the federal government wants to give them? And wouldn’t it be a triumph for Puckett to bring real and affordable medical care to his people, and send those kindhearted volunteer doctors, nurses and dentists with their mobile operating tables to another part of the country? Or better yet, another part of the world?

Instead, just as the battle was getting heated and a government shutdown loomed, Puckett resigned his seat and gave the Republicans a majority. On Monday, Puckett cited family issues and his daughter — a Russell County juvenile court judge who can’t be confirmed into the position permanently as long as he is a lawmaker — as the reasons for his resignation.

But it’s kind of funny, right after resigning — and this was a total coincidence, they all swear — Puckett was going to take a cushy job with the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, doling out millions in tobacco settlement money. It was not a quid pro quo, said Republicans who were about to offer him the job.

They were just excited that Puckett “became available” to be appointed to this plush gig about the same time the Medicaid showdown loomed. Just weird timing, right?

Well, Virginia roared. And in the middle of the firestorm and howls of protest that could be heard up and down the Appalachian Trail on Monday, Puckett announced that he would keep his banking job.

Too late. The damage he did by leaving Richmond when he was in the middle of an honorable battle is desertion of his people. There is a crisis in Virginia, particularly in Puckett’s part of Virginia.

I hope his former constituents remember what he did when the medical tents go up in Wise County next month. Many of them would be getting health insurance if it weren’t for the state’s game-playing Republicans and Democrats like Puckett.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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