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Senate Republicans reject Medicaid expansion

RICHMOND, Va. – Republicans in the Virginia Senate on Thursday tabled legislation that would have expanded Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of lower-income residents of Virginia.

Voting along party lines, the Senate Education and Health Committee indefinitely postponed action on the proposal. The eight Republicans on the panel voted to kill the measure; the seven Democrats voted to keep it alive.

The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid. Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax noted that Virginia’s neighboring states – including West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – have done so.

Saslaw said the federal government has promised to pay most of the costs of Medicaid expansion.

“If someone came up to me and said, ‘Saslaw, we’ll pick up 90 percent of your medical insurance costs if you pay the other 10, and we think we have a way around that 10,’ I would have to be a lunatic to turn down that offer,” Saslaw said.

However, Republican senators said they fear that Medicaid expansion would put a hole in the state budget.

“The federal level, they can just raise the debt ceiling,” said Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County. “We can’t do that at the state level.”

She said the state has limited resources. As Medicaid takes up more of the state budget, others services would have to be cut back, Chase said.

“It doesn’t take long to see we have major infrastructure needs,” Chase said. “We have bridges in my district that you can’t even drive ambulances over or fire trucks over because of the crumbling infrastructure.”

A fellow Republican, Sen. Richard Black of Loudoun County, said Medicaid costs are escalating out of control.

“I think it’s premature to move forward on this and potentially get ourselves stuck in a situation where we’ve expanded, and all of a sudden we’re having to do this thing on our own dime,” Black said.

The legislation at hand was SB 572, sponsored by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County. A similar measure – SB 158, filed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke – had been folded into Hanger’s bill.

Democrats, including newly elected Gov. Ralph Northam, have made Medicaid expansion a top priority. It was also a priority for many of the people who attended Thursday’s committee meeting. They included Julien Parley, who has a son with autism. She said Medicaid expansion would help mothers like her.

“There was a time that I worked three jobs, and I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor,” Parley said. “I resorted to going to the emergency room, which racked up bills and it also was a hardship on my credit.”

People without health coverage often resort to the emergency room, said Julie Dime of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.

“Countless Virginians that don’t have access to health care find their only option to be the hospital emergency room,” Dime said.

By Chris Wood/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.