RICHMOND, FEB. 24 -- The Virginia Senate, delaying for a year the tough decisions on how to control the state's rising health care costs, today endorsed a 12-month moratorium on new hospital and nursing home services that even supporters concede may have no real effect.
The Senate's 29-to-10 vote for a moratorium, which followed private personal appeals by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who recommended it, came during six hours of deliberation on the governor's proposed $22.5 billion budget for the coming two years. The Senate later approved the budget, 36 to 4.
Meanwhile, the spending plan won overwhelming approval in the House of Delegates today after Republicans sniped at pork barrel projects sought by two of the legislature's leading Democrats.
The governor's budget now moves to a House-Senate conference committee so the two sides can hash out their differences. So far, the House has not embraced the concept of a freeze on new medical services, and there are other policy initiatives and budget items the conferees will have to resolve before the General Assembly adjourns March 12.
Besides supporting the moratorium, the Senate voted to further weaken an administration-backed program of "family life" education, which includes a hotly contested section on sex education. Senators voted by a lopsided margin for a budget amendment, sponsored by Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), that would allow elementary schools to avoid using any "sexually explicit material" when teaching about human sexuality.
The moratorium debate, which touched off some fiery exchanges between Sens. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria) and Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), the Senate majority leader and Baliles' main ally on the floor, revolved around the mixed success of Virginia's "certificate of need" program for licensing of nursing beds.
Under Baliles' moratorium proposal, state regulators would not approve nursing home beds or new hospital services as a way to control the state's escalating cost of providing health care to the poor under the state-federal Medicaid program.
Mitchell, contending that the certificate of need program had failed to keep a lid on medical costs for the past 15 years, derided the moratorium as little more than Baliles' retribution against a medical industry that last month killed his proposal to charge fees on hospitals and nursing homes to pay for indigent care.
"Everybody in this Senate knows why this bill is here," Mitchell told a hushed chamber, whose gallery included several hospital administrators from around the state. The reason, he went on, was "to provide a weapon to browbeat the hospitals of this commonwealth into submission."
Far from hurting the state's medical industry, a moratorium would "fall like a sledgehammer on those weak and innocent people who have no voice" but need nursing care, Mitchell added.
Andrews responded by asserting that a moratorium akin to the one-year freezes on services during the late 1970s and early 1980s, would help curb the "medical arms race" of hospital competition for new services and equipment.
"To say that hospitals and nursing homes are not getting it out of the public trough is to be naive," Andrews said.
Sen. Clarence A. Holland (D-Virginia Beach), a physician who supported the moratorium, said a freeze would have virtually no impact on nursing home and hospital profits, but would send a message to the medical community. "You will get the attention of the physicians," said Holland.
Later, an amendment proposed by state Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt) to cut Medicaid funding for nursing homes by $45 million to prevent the creation of more than 5,000 beds that already have been approved but not yet built, was defeated handily, 23 to 15.
The Senate also defeated two proposals to further loosen the moratorium by adding broad exceptions.
The Senate's version of the budget survived several other attempts to amend it. Defeated were proposals to restore $3.55 million taken out of the governor's budget plan for alcohol abuse programs, to add money for the blind and to eliminate a pay differential for Northern Virginia teachers.
Mitchell tried to tack on a measure, now stalled in a Senate committee, to raise the speed limit on rural highways to 65 miles per hour, but the amendment was ruled out of order by Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, in a ruling sustained by a 30-to-9 vote.
In the House, the only four attempts to amend Baliles' budget on the floor came from minority Republicans, and all were rejected.
Del. George F. Allen (R-Charlottesville) sought to transfer $11 million designated for pet projects of two senior Democrats to education funding.
Allen attacked a $6 million appropriation for a "theme park" in Roanoke sought by House Finance Committee Chairman C. Richard Cranwell (D-Vinton), and $5 million for an air and space museum in Hampton, Andrews' home.
Del. G. Steven Agee (R-Roanoke) unsuccessfully sought to revoke higher office expenses for legislators, and Del. S. Vance Wilkins (R-Amherst) tried to remove the $175,000 appropriation for the Council on the Status of Women, saying it "does absolutely nothing worthwhile."
"Brave soul," Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Bassett) whispered into the microphone of Wilkins' proposal.
Staff writer Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.