Governor & Republicans spar on Medicaid, downplay Virginia shutdown fears

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's a shutdown scenario that is possible for Virginia – would Gov. Terry McAuliffe refuse to sign the budget, if Medicaid expansion failed to pass the General Assembly?

McAuliffe made Medicaid expansion a critical campaign promise last summer. The Governor pledged to bring healthcare to 400,000 Virginians who have incomes too high for Medicaid, but too low to afford quality health insurance.

In an interview Tuesday, Gov. McAuliffe backed off the threat of a government shutdown. His comments contrasted from statements made on the camping trail, when he promised not to sign a budget unless it included Medicaid expansion.

"The only ones who are talking about a shutdown are the Republican leadership," McAuliffe said. "We can get this done. It's the right thing to do – to bring our tax dollars back to Virginia."

Republican House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford) expressed optimism that a shutdown would be avoided, but said Virginia is not ready for Medicaid expansion.

"[Medicaid spending] has grown over 1,600 percent over the past 30 years," Howell said in an interview Tuesday. "And every dollar that we don't take from the federal government is one less dollar they have to borrow."

The problem, in part, stems from trust with Washington. States now have the option of expanding Medicaid to thousands, with the federal government picking up most of the tab. But Republicans do not believe Washington will be able to pay for more Virginia hospital bills because of current federal spending levels.

"They just don't have the ability to follow through," Howell said. "They are $17 trillion in debt today. They're adding to that debt anywhere between a trillion and a half a trillion a year."

But McAuliffe defended the federal government's ability to keep its end of the deal, and said Virginia could change course if Washington backed out of its promise.

"First of all, they've never backed out of their commitment to Medicare," McAuliffe said. "But if they change [the Medicaid deal], we change it. That's a simple part of negotiations to do. I've been open to that."

There is now a compromise plan in the Senate tentatively called "Marketplace Virginia," where Medicaid dollars would be used to fund private health insurance options. McAuliffe said he would be open to the proposal.

"You know, maybe I'm the ultimate optimist here, but I believe we're going to get it done," McAuliffe said of expansion. "These 400,000 Virginians are still going to go to an emergency room. They will be treated. Somebody will pay for that. That cost will be borne by our businesses."

The apparent stalemate comes at a time when the 2014 session of the Virginia General Assembly is near conclusion. Lawmakers in Richmond are just two and a half weeks away from the session's March 8 adjournment.

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