It was billed as a town hall regarding Medicaid expansion, but Del. Dickie Bell found himself squarely in the arena Monday night fending off questions of why Virginia can’t expand the healthcare program.
During a two-hour town hall meeting co-sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, Bell, who represents Staunton and Waynesboro, received skepticism from much of the audience. He especially drew the ire of members of Virginia Organizing, a grassroots group that wants to expand Medicaid.
Bell said Medicaid expansion is holding up the Virginia budget, and said “it should be talked about on its own merits,’’ not as part of the state budget. The state budget has not been approved yet.
He said the guarantee of 100 percent federal coverage of the expansion for three years doesn’t include the cost of setting up a Virginia exchange, adding employees and other costs. “It’s a difficult and important matter and it won’t be resolved easily,’’ he said. Bell said the expansion is “fiscally irresponsible and not sustainable.”
But many in the audience felt otherwise, Elizabeth La Grua, a Virginia Organizing chapter leader from Swoope, said expanding Medicaid comes from tax money paid by Virginians, and said the proponents far outweigh those who don’t want it.
Dr. Joe Ranzini, a surgeon at Augusta Health and chairman of the hospital board’s committee on quality and patient safety, said the expansion would close the gap for 400,000 Virginians and provide more revenue for the hospital.
Ranzini said while Augusta Health is profitable, that is because it is well managed and said only such departments as outpatient surgery, radiology and the hospital lab are profitable.
Prior to Monday night’s town hall meeting by Bell, members of Virginia Organizing rallied outside the Waynesboro Public Library, displaying signs in favor of Medicaid expansion.
Earlier Monday, Republican leadership in the General Assembly held a telephone press conference to discuss their concerns about the impasse in the Virginia budget and Medicaid negotiations.
Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell said last week’s poll by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University showed “that Virginians solidly oppose’’ a Medicaid expansion.
The poll showed that 53 percent do not want the expansion, while 41 percent do.
“We need to pass a clean budget that keeps the state open,’’ Howell said. “It’s time for the Senate Democrats to quit playing games and put the budget in conference.”
Howell said he believes Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Senate Democrats are anxious to push the budget impasse past June 30. “That would be reckless, irresponsible and would be devastating to the commonwealth,’’ Howell said.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said there is neither public support nor sufficient support in the General Assembly to expand Medicaid.
Howell said the only way to deal with expanding Medicaid is to hold a separate special session on it once the budget is passed.
He said “a full discourse’’ is needed on Medicaid in committee and on the General Assembly floor.