In Va. legislature, Republicans plan Medicaid debate in late September

Republican leaders plan to call the House and Senate back into session in late September to debate Medicaid expansion, a move intended to give legislators another chance to weigh in on the issue as Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) tries to find a way to expand the program without their approval.

The decision to reconvene, announced Wednesday, is intended to show that Republicans are willing to discuss expanding Medicaid as long as the matter is divorced from the state budget. It will also be an opportunity for the GOP to assert the General Assembly’s authority just weeks after McAuliffe’s health secretary is due to unveil a plan intended to allow the governor to expand Medicaid on his own.

Disagreement over Medicaid led to a months-long budget standoff that threatened to trigger a government shutdown July 1. With that deadline fast approaching last month, Senate Democrats and three moderate Republicans in that chamber agreed to pass a budget that did not expand the health-care program for the poor under the Affordable Care Act.

“Throughout Governor Mc­Auliffe’s unnecessary budget impasse, I and other House leaders consistently expressed our commitment to a full and fair debate on the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in a written statement. “We intend to honor that commitment by reconvening in September of this year.”

McAuliffe had vowed during last fall’s campaign not to sign a budget that did not expand Medicaid. But in June, he reluctantly gave in to avert a shutdown and put a budget in place for the start of the new fiscal year, July 1. He also announced then that he would defy the Republican-led legislature and find a way to provide health care for up to 400,000 uninsured Virginians. He ordered Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel Jr. to come up with a plan for unilateral expansion by Sept. 1.

“The Governor hopes that Republicans in the General Assembly will finally put what’s best for Virginia families ahead of petty ideological politics and offer a serious proposal to close the coverage gap,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said in a written statement. “Expanding health care coverage to Virginians who are already paying for it is the right [thing] to do morally and economically, and the Governor and his team are continuing to devise a plan to move forward using the authorities of his office.”

Republicans contend there is no legal way for the governor to expand without the legislature’s consent in a state where all money — even pass-through funds from Washington — must be appropriated by the legislature. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) reiterated that point as he announced, with Howell, plans to call legislators back to Richmond sometime in the week of Sept. 22.

“Although I remain to be persuaded that Medicaid expansion would be the right financial decision for Virginia, any decision to enact a change this major would require the General Assembly’s approval,” Norment said.

An exact date for reconvening has not been set. Howell and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) will issue formal calls to reconvene after Labor Day.

The Republicans are not technically calling a special session, something they have the power to do but only through a complicated and rarely used mechanism. Typically, the governor is the one who calls special sessions. But McAuliffe does not seem inclined to call one on Medicaid expansion since he has declared that he will move ahead to expand the program — or come up with some other way to expand health-care access — without the legislature’s authority.

But the legislature is still in the special session that McAuliffe called in March, after the legislature adjourned its regular session without passing a budget. McAuliffe called that special session for two purposes — to pass a budget and to elect judges — and the legislature has completed only its budget work. When it reconvenes, probably sometime later this summer, to handle judges, the legislature can, by a simple majority vote, add Medicaid expansion to the list of issues to be taken up in the special session.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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