Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe used the reappointment of Dr. William A. Hazel Jr. as secretary of health and human resources to renew his pitch for Medicaid expansion — and to reassure the women of Virginia that he would not renege on his promise to protect and expand on their rights and access to reproductive health care.
"I am committed to blocking any effort to limit a Virginia woman's right to make her own decisions about her own health care," McAuliffe said Wednesday in remarks at the VCU School of Medicine in Richmond, where he announced his retention of Hazel.
"I made it clear during my campaign that protecting and expanding women's health care access will be a top priority of my administration — and Virginians can expect me and my entire team to honor that promise over the course of the next four years," McAuliffe said.
Hazel, an orthopedic surgeon from Northern Virginia and former president of the Medical Society of Virginia, presided over HHS as stringent new regulations were developed and approved by the state Board of Health that subject Virginia's existing abortion clinics to building standards for new hospital construction.
The regulations were an outgrowth of a General Assembly law passed in 2011 and signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, an opponent of abortion, and are scheduled to take effect in mid-2014.
Advocates, among them Christian conservative groups with ties to the administration, said the new rules were necessary to protect patient safety. But abortion-rights advocates said they were a thinly veiled attempt to outlaw abortion in Virginia by imposing unnecessary construction costs on the facilities that would force them to close. Several had expressed reservations about McAuliffe keeping Hazel, saying he did not engage or speak up against the clinic regulations or another law that mandates ultrasounds for any woman seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound.
Former state Health Commissioner Dr. Karen Remley, who resigned in October 2012 over the regulations, said she shares McAuliffe's "passion for maternal child health as well as reproductive rights and remain very concerned about these pivotal issues. I fully expect he will honor his commitment to Virginia voters by holding every member of his administration accountable to furthering these goals."
In remarks Wednesday, Hazel made it clear that he supports McAuliffe's policies and will be playing for a different team come Inauguration Day.
"I have heard the promises that the governor-elect has made, and I'm 100 percent committed to keeping them as we go forward," Hazel said. "I will follow the governor's lead. He calls the plays."
"One of the jobs of being a cabinet secretary is you follow the governor; the other role of a cabinet secretary is you implement the law," Hazel added. "Governor McAuliffe, on January 11 about noon, will be my new boss."
McAuliffe said he would look "at all regulatory options available" when it comes to addressing access issues created by the clinic regulations.
"I will be a brick wall to protect women's rights and women's access," he said. "And I don't think anybody should have any concerns about that."
The incoming governor also made it clear that he'll be counting on Hazel to help facilitate the most ambitious goal of his legislative agenda — the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Hazel enjoys support in the legislature among Democrats and Republicans and has led the discussion on the issues surrounding expansion in Virginia.
McAuliffe called Hazel "the right man for the job," saying he is "an experienced, talented and dedicated public servant who understands the steps we need to take to improve our health care system, to make sure we're providing care for everyone."
Conservative Republicans have balked at expansion, casting doubts on the federal government's promise to reimburse states for the cost of the program. McAuliffe and Democrats have said expansion would bring care to as many as 400,000 Virginians, and made the business argument that failure to expand would cripple some hospitals that provide indigent care and send $21 billion in state taxpayer money to the states that have agreed to expand.
"If we do not accept the money it could be disastrous for our health care system and would hamper many academic health centers," said McAuliffe, noting that VCU is the largest provider of indigent care in Virginia.