RICHMOND — Senate Democrats on Tuesday backed off a threat to hold a bill related to a rural hospital hostage because its Republican sponsor wouldn't agree to expand Medicaid, abandoning their hardball tactic at the urging of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
One week after a bloc of Democrats killed a bill intended to help the shuttered Patrick County hospital in Southwest Virginia, the Senate voted unanimously for an identical measure, which Sen. William Stanley (R-Franklin) filed just hours after the original had died.
The about-face came after Northam urged Democrats to work with Stanley, perhaps signaling how seriously the new governor intends to make good on promises of cooperation on Capitol Square.
Northam, a well-liked former state senator and lieutenant governor, pledged to work across the aisle. But he spent last week — his first as Virginia's chief executive — facing GOP grumbling that his first address to the legislature had been overly partisan in tone.
Stanley credited the behind-the-scenes work of Northam, a practicing physician, and Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) for bringing Democrats around to help the hospital.
"Ralph and I talked," Stanley said. "He's always been supportive of the bill. I know he's let his opinion be known to others about his support."
Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington), who had led the charge against Stanley's bill a week ago but on Tuesday urged fellow Democrats to support it, said the governor encouraged the caucus to work something out with Stanley.
"The governor urged us to work with him, and we were to interpret that the way we felt appropriate," she said.
Northam spokesman Brian Coy confirmed that the governor had reached out to both sides.
"He believes this is the right thing to do for this hospital and the region," Coy said. "He worked with members of both caucuses and both chambers to try to facilitate a way forward."
On Monday, the House unanimously passed a companion bill, sponsored by Del. Charles Poindexter (R- Franklin). Before the vote, House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) chided Senate Democrats for killing Stanley's original bill, calling their action a "hiccup."
"We don't hiccup around here," Toscano said. "We do what's right."
Patrick County Hospital opened in 1962, after local textile, tobacco and coal workers donated 75 cents to $1 out of their weekly paychecks for three years. The 25-bed facility was most recently owned and operated by Pioneer Health Systems, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016. The hospital closed in September 2017.
With its closure, ambulances have had to travel as much as two hours to take patients to other hospitals, Stanley said. A 30-member delegation from Patrick County, including emergency services personnel, appeared in the Senate gallery Tuesday to observe the vote. Stanley flashed them a thumbs-up when the board lit up green.
Stanley's bill would extend the hospital's license through the end of the year, making the property more attractive to a potential buyer and speeding reopening by several months.
Republicans control the Senate by a 21-to-19 margin, but Stanley needed a supermajority of 32 for passage because his bill was emergency legislation. That designation will speed the measure to Northam's desk and allow it to take effect immediately after the governor signs it into law, rather than on July 1, when most new laws kick in.
Democrats objected to the bill as a "Band-Aid" fix that did not address the broader problem of inadequate health care across the commonwealth. They noted that even in wealthier, more populous areas with no shortage of hospitals, many Virginians cannot get proper health care because they lack insurance. So they tried to link the hospital bill to the long-running fight to expand Medicaid to an additional 400,000 Virginians.
Democrats, who need support from two Republicans to get Medicaid expansion out of the closely divided Senate, told Stanley they would not back his original bill unless he supported expansion of Medicaid. Like all but one Senate Republican, Stanley has opposed expansion, saying the federal government cannot afford to keep its promise to pick up most of the state's $2 billion-a-year tab.
Stanley's original bill died on a 30-to-10 vote — nine Democrats voted for the bill, along with all 21 Republicans. In Tuesday's do-over, his bill sailed out of the Senate 39-to-0, with one Democrat absent.
Stanley said he made no promises on Medicaid but said he always keeps an open mind.
"I'm never one that's ever closed off in any way," he said. "I continue to look at ways where we can come together on things. Even if we don't agree in principle on something, there's always middle ground that can benefit the commonwealth."
Favola agreed that Stanley had made no promises, but she was hopeful for some movement on expanding access to health care in some form.
"I believe that Senator Stanley and others are now acknowledging that there are bigger issues than just coming up with a Band-Aid for this particular situation," she said. "And Senator Stanley has said to me personally he understands that more people need to be insured. Now, whether we can get to a place of compromise, I don't know."