RICHMOND — Soon after the Supreme Court salvaged a key part of the nation’s Affordable Care Act on Thursday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was rallying the troops in the state capital to expand Medicaid under the law.
“[N]ow is the time to drop cynical efforts to prevent families from accessing care that will make their lives better,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “With this issue decided, I hope we can now put partisan politics aside and . . . close the coverage gap.”
McAuliffe (D) led a pitched and ultimately unsuccessful battle to add 400,000 uninsured Virginians to the Medicaid rolls during his first year in office, taking the state to the brink of a government shutdown in an attempt to expand coverage for the poor under the new federal law.
In the aftermath, the governor shifted his focus to the bipartisan cause of economic development, got so chummy with Republicans that he worried some Democrats, and said expansion had always been a lost cause.
“You know as well as I did, they were never going to pass it,” he said in an interview in January as his freshman year wound up. “But golly, I got to try.”
But suddenly Thursday, the governor who lately has been all about the“new Virginia economy” was dusting off the catchphrase that dominated his first year in office: “close the coverage gap.”
Under the ACA, states have the option to expand Medicaid enrollment to uninsured people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which currently means about $24,000 for a family of four.
McAuliffe has said an expansion would help the poor and give a huge boost to the state’s economy. But the Republican-dominated House has opposed placing more people into what they call a flawed entitlement program and has been skeptical of promises that Washington would foot most of the $2 billion-a-year bill.
McAuliffe’s comments about renewing the Medicaid fight came in a busy week for the governor, who, after an 11-day absence for a trade mission to Europe, was sounding off on a string of hot-button Democratic issues.
On Tuesday, he booted the Confederate flag off a specialty license plate and eased the way for felons to regain voting rights. On Wednesday, he ordered the state to study bringing back parole. And Thursday, he was gunning for another Medicaid fight.
Democrats and Republicans alike said they have noticed a shift in tone from earlier this year, when McAuliffe seemed more eager to project the image of a bipartisan dealmaker.
This week, said Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Salem), McAuliffe seemed to be “picking every liberal cause of the day and trumpeting it far and wide. . . . This governor so built his legacy around, ‘I’m going to fix the economy,’ I think he’s realized now he can’t deliver.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said it should be no surprise that the governor is calling for a Medicaid expansion.
“The governor’s never stopped focusing on this issue, and he’s not going to stop fighting for it,” Coy said. “Standing up for policies that Virginians want isn’t political posturing. It’s good government.”
The Supreme Court case turned on a fairly obscure issue related to whether subsidies could be provided for health plans bought in states, such as Virginia, that do not have their own insurance exchanges. (The court ruled 6 to 3 that they can be.)
The decision has no bearing on Medicaid expansion, except that if it had gone the other way, the entire ACA might have collapsed.
But Democrats said the ruling could nevertheless give the Medicaid push momentum.
“Some of these people need to get over it,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “I mean, that law’s not going away.”
But House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said his caucus’s opposition to increasing the size of the federal program had not changed.
“We . . . remain committed to strengthening our health-care safety net without expanding our broken Medicaid system,” he said.