RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who returned Thursday from an eight-day trade mission to China and London, was going to hop on a plane the very next day to fly to a free medical clinic in far southwest Virginia.
McAuliffe’s overseas journey was meant to boost trade and investment in Virginia; the trip to the Remote Area Medical expedition in Wise County is intended to highlight the plight of the state’s uninsured residents — and bolster the governor’s bid to expand access to health care.
A field hospital springs up every year on the Wise County Fairgrounds, near the Kentucky border. For three days, hundreds of dentists, doctors and other health-care providers volunteer their services, and 1,000 or more people camp out for the chance to have a tooth pulled or various ailments checked out.
McAuliffe (D) will visit the clinic with Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) and the state’s health and human resources secretary, William A. Hazel Jr. Hazel, an orthopedic surgeon, will see patients. McAuliffe and Herring will thank volunteers and find nonmedical ways to pitch in, perhaps by checking in patients.
McAuliffe is expected to use his visit to make a pitch for expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“This is, in many cases, the only type of health care the people in southwest Virginia get,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said. “This is a real illustration of the need in many parts of Virginia for access to health care. And it’s certainly no substitute for getting access to health-care programs like Medicaid and other opportunities.”
Since taking office, McAuliffe has pushed to extend Medicaid coverage to 400,000 uninsured Virginians. He contends that the expansion would help needy citizens, shore up rural hospitals and create more than 30,000 jobs at little cost to Virginia. Washington has promised to pick up the full, $2 billion-a-year tab for the first three years and then gradually shrink its support to 90 percent.
Most Republicans say the existing Medicaid program, which consumes 22 percent of the state budget, needs to be reformed before expansion is considered. They also ask how an overextended federal government can afford to bankroll expansion in the long term, predicting that Virginia would ultimately get stuck with the bill. The health-care act’s troubled rollout and persistent problems have only added to GOP skepticism.
Disagreement over Medicaid led to a protracted budget standoff this year. The deadlock threatened to shut down state government July 1 until McAuliffe and other expansion supporters yielded in mid-June, agreeing to a two-year spending plan that did not extend Medicaid coverage.
But McAuliffe also vowed in June to defy the legislature and find a way to expand health-care access unilaterally. That will be no easy trick in a state whose constitution dictates that all spending — even spending of pass-through funds from Washington — be appropriated by the General Assembly. McAuliffe ordered Hazel to come up with a plan by Sept. 1 that would allow him to expand Medicaid on his own or do something akin to it.
In the meantime, McAuliffe will reiterate the case for expansion as he visits the free clinic, as will Hazel, the health secretary. Hazel, who served in the same position under the previous governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), will be volunteering for his fifth year.
“It is a remarkable experience to see the overwhelming needs and the human misery that exists in Southwest Virginia due to the lack of access to medical care in the region,” Hazel said in an e-mail. “I return every year because the people I meet remind me why I accepted this job — twice — and why it is so important for Gov. McAuliffe and me to continue serving as advocates for Virginians who lack adequate health care.”