Va. Democrats push Medicaid expansion as top joint legislative priority

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Squeezed into a small room in the Virginia State Capitol, House and Senate Democrats crowded around a podium Thursday. They were there to discuss their top joint legislative priority for the General Assembly session — Medicaid expansion.

Now more than ever they are feeling confident they will be able to push it through. After major wins in November, they have more pull in the House.

“Over the last four years, we’ve been working on this challenge and we haven’t been able to get it done yet, but we think we have an opportunity this year,” said House Minority Leader Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville).

One of the fresh faces in the chamber this year is Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke). She, like many others in the group, ran on Medicaid expansion.

For her, it’s personal.

“I lost my brother to PTSD and alcoholism two weeks after I announced my candidacy,” she said.

Her brother’s ongoing health issues were a main motivator for the freshman delegate to run for office.

She said the fear and terror brought on by his PTSD led to no sleep, which led to no job, which led to no insurance. She believes he could still be alive today had he been able to get help when he needed it.

“The struggle of people who are not wealthy to get the care is outrageous and shameful,” she said. “The reason I didn’t quit is because I had met so many like him. So many deserving people.”

Gooditis said she is hopeful Virginia will see Medicaid expansion come to fruition.

“There are 140 beautiful beating hearts in this state assembly,” she said. “I like to think that if they had all met my brother, they would have loved him as everyone did and they would have said, ‘This man deserves care.'”

But House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said fixing health care can’t be done by waving a magic wand, or, in this case, the stroke of a pen.

He said there will be serious financial ramifications if Virginia chooses to expand coverage to about 400,000 additional people.

“We cannot afford this,” he said. “We cannot afford the obligation we have.”

Gilbert describes Medicaid as a broken program that is already far outpacing revenue in Virginia.

“It’s growing at an unsustainable rate,” he said.

By not expanding Medicaid, Virginia has forfeited $10 billion in federal tax dollars allocated to Medicaid expansion. It went to other states.

But Gilbert said the money isn’t guaranteed.

“[It’s] not fair to the taxpayers that are going to have to bear that burden when ultimately that federal money that we keep being promised falls through,” said Gilbert.

He points to another program that didn’t live up to expectations.

“We do not believe that so called ‘free’ federal money is always going to be there,” said Gilbert. “Just look at this Children’s Healthcare Insurance Program that fell through where all of a sudden all these children all across America who depended on this federal money are not getting it.”

Gilbert said Republicans believe there are ways to help people in need without “breaking the bank.”

“We’ve tried to do that in the past. In fact, we’ve gone to great lengths to try to expand what we call the health care safety net, which is for instance money for free clinics and things that provide indigent care all across Virginia trying to alleviate some of the burdens on our emergency rooms,” he said.

While it’s ultimately up to lawmakers, Medicaid expansion is baked into Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal.

“We hope that turns into a nice tasting souffle for us,” said Toscano.

But the Democratic leader said it could come down to compromise.

“Well there are a lot of options on the table to be sure,” said Toscano. “I think we’ve got a lot of good brains in the General Assembly and can put their heads together and come up with something that’s going to work for everybody.”

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