GOP legislators in Virginia predict impasse over Medicaid expansion, blame Democrats

RICHMOND — Just one day after House and Senate panels unveiled rival budget plans, House Republicans were predicting an impasse and blaming it on the Democrats’ push for Medicaid expansion.

“Democrats have decided to play a high-stakes game of chicken for the sake of expanding Obamacare in Virginia,” House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said in a speech on the House floor Monday. “They have decided to hold hostage millions of dollars in funding for schools, teachers, police officers and hospitals in exchange for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.”

The House and Senate are not deadlocked over the state budget — yet.

But legislators in both chambers and in both parties agree that it will be hard to reconcile the two spending plans, primarily because of how much they differ on Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states have the option of greatly expanding eligibility for the health-care program for the poor and those with disabilities. Republicans in the GOP-dominated House are flatly opposed, saying Washington cannot afford to keep its promise to pick up most of the $2 billion-a-year tab. Democrats and a few moderate Republicans in the evenly split Senate support expansion through a market-based model, using the Medicaid money to subsidize private insurance plans for as many as 400,000 uninsured Virginians.

A deadlock on the issue could force the General Assembly session, slated to end March 8, to run into overtime. It also could lead to a shutdown of state government if differences on Medicaid hold up passage of a budget before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

Republicans, who got most of the blame for the federal government shutdown last fall, are trying to make sure Democrats take the hit if the Medicaid fight precipitates a shutdown on the state level.

Democrats are countering with the notion that Republicans are the ones threatening core government services by eschewing federal funding that amounts to $5 million a day.

Republicans have been predicting a Medicaid-induced state government shutdown since last year’s governor’s race, when now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) was vowing to reject any budget that did not include Medicaid expansion. The GOP said that amounted to a threat to shutter the government over the issue. McAuliffe’s campaign said at the time that no threat was implied, but he started softening his rhetoric on that front.

Now House Republicans say Democrats are back to playing hardball by weaving Medicaid expansion into the Senate budget. The GOP would have preferred a stand-alone bill that could be voted up or down without affecting everything else in the two-year, $96 billion spending plan.

Cox ticked off highlights of the House budget — a pay raise or bonus for all state employees; millions in new funding for K-12 education; $20 million to hold down tuition increases at state colleges and universities; a big boost in mental-health funding — and said Medicaid expansion had put it all in doubt.

“All of this is in jeopardy because the Senate has decided to inject Washington-style politics into Virginia’s budget process,” Cox said.

House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) faulted the House plan even though it provides hospitals with an additional $81 million to cover the cost of inflation. He said the extra money was a good thing but not enough to make up for what hospitals would receive if more patients were covered by Medicaid. And he said it made no sense to divert state tax revenue to hospitals when federal funds were available.

“We are taking general fund money from other parts of the budget and are sending it to the hospitals,” Toscano said. “We could have grabbed the federal dollars that we have already sent to Washington and bring them back here.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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