RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe used the occasion of his first bill-signing Wednesday to make a far-reaching pitch for Medicaid expansion as an economic development tool.
Saying he’s flexible about the details, hungry to find bipartisan compromise and “willing to work with anybody, around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” McAuliffe (D) said that the commonwealth should seize the chance to insure hundreds of thousands of low-income Virginians under the new health-care law — for their sake, and the sake of the economy.
“In order for us to be competitive, we need to make sure that our citizens are healthy. But today I’m competing against 26 states [including the District] that are accepting the coverage,” McAuliffe said. “These 26 states are taking Virginia taxpayer money and providing health care for their citizens, paid for by us.”
Top officials in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates continued to rebuff the governor’s overtures, arguing that they would prefer to watch problems with the health-care law unfold from afar and revisit the expansion issue later.
“We’ve got to be careful before we jump on the sinking ship of Obamacare,” said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax). “I’m not saying no forever. I’m just saying take your time on this.”
Sitting in his ceremonial office in the Virginia Capitol, steps from the House and Senate chambers, McAuliffe signed a routine tax bill that he said will help low-income Virginians take advantage of benefits under the federal earned-income tax credit. But he used reporters’ Medicaid questions as a springboard to try to explain the need for Medicaid expansion in the broadest context.
McAuliffe said he spends “more than half my day, every single day” on economic development tasks, including “calling around the globe.” This week, he visited the Eastern Shore to announce 140 jobs at a concrete company. Last week, it was Martinsville, when a firm in the United Kingdom brought 150 jobs to Virginia, passing up four other states.
“This is a competitive, global economy,” McAuliffe said. But efforts to promote growth can be undone if the health-care system falters in parts of the state that are already hurting, he said. Without the influx of federal funds from the Medicaid expansion, he continued, some hospitals could face financial stress or even closure, as recently happened to Lee Regional Medical Center in Southwest Virginia.
“I know that Lee County needs jobs. . . . It’s very hard to get a facility to move to a county that no longer has a hospital,” McAuliffe said. “This could happen to many more of our communities.”
Proponents have said that up to 400,000 Virginians could be covered under the Medicaid expansion provision of the Affordable Care Act. McAuliffe pointed to recent figures from the state’s Medicaid overseers and PricewaterhouseCoopers, showing the state’s budget could get a massive boost.
“We can do this between now and 2022 and literally save our budget over a billion dollars. So I don’t know what the argument is anymore,” McAuliffe said.
Asked whether he would agree to pass some of the savings on to Virginians in the form of tax cuts, McAuliffe said: “I’d certainly be open to that.”
Opponents of the expansion have argued that the figures are unreliable, noting that earlier projections had the state losing money in the arrangement. McAuliffe said the figures have been revised with data from many states showing the population signing up is healthier than expected, and thus less expensive to cover.
Expansion opponents also argue that the federal government is not a trustworthy longtime partner, given its own towering deficits and irresponsible spending. They have a powerful ally in House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who said he believes Medicaid expansion “is not going to happen” this session.
McAuliffe said he hopes politics can be peeled away and a deal can be done.
“I’m dismayed at some who have just said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ That’s not how you get into a negotiation,” McAuliffe said.
But Howell spokesman Matt Moran countered this way: “That’s premised on the fact that there’s something to negotiate.” Moran said a commission created by the legislature to find savings in the fast-growing Medicaid program is still doing its work, and the program’s reforms have not had a chance to kick in fully.
“What the governor’s really trying to do is rush the work” of the commission, “or go around it,” Moran said.