VIRGINIA GOV. Terry McAuliffe (D) faced a tough choice this week, with only bad options amid the biggest Obamacare fight in the country. Republicans in the legislature have been determined to turn down billions in federal money to cover some 400,000 low-income Virginians. Mr. McAuliffe on Friday announced that he would go it alone, bypassing the General Assembly and unilaterally expanding access to affordable health care in the state. In a public address, the governor insisted that he had many legal avenues, and he assigned his secretary of health and human services to bring him a plan by Sept. 1.
There’s no way to pass judgment on the governor’s plan until one exists. Perhaps there is a sensible and legal way for him to push through a coverage expansion in line with what the Affordable Care Act envisioned for Virginia, respectful of the prerogatives of the General Assembly. But much as we support the goal of wider coverage, we’re skeptical about the prospect of unilateral action.
It was Mr. McAuliffe who sought the democratic validity of expanding low-income health coverage with legislative approval. He asked the General Assembly to approve taking the cash the federal government set aside to pump up the state’s Medicaid program, or at least to accept the money and expand coverage among low-income Virginians some other way. Months of deadlock resulted, but in the end Mr. McAuliffe failed to persuade lawmakers.
The governor, an inveterate deal maker, no doubt thought he had a great chance of winning them over. He is right on the policy. Expansion would pose little risk to the state, which would be on the hook only for a small contribution for the federally financed expansion of coverage. The financial health of the state’s hospitals is also on the line. Without the influx of federal health-care money, funding cuts elsewhere in the Affordable Care Act will stress their budgets. Virginians are already paying federal taxes to cover expansion costs; they should want to bring some of those tax dollars back to the state.
Republicans had no cogent arguments in response, and they spurned generous compromise offers at every turn. But they did have near-total party unity, driven by tenacious opposition to Obamacare, and they made their wishes clear, passing a budget that specifically barred coverage expansion.
No matter their motives, it is hard to see how Mr. McAuliffe can now turn around and tell the people of Virginia that the last several months of political strife in Richmond, which included the threat of a state government shutdown, was unnecessary from the get go. We believe that the legislature should end its standoff with the governor by taking the generous deal the federal government is offering Virginia. But as he develops his backup plan, Mr. McAuliffe cannot pretend as though the General Assembly has not spoken.