When they went to bed on Saturday night, the 400,000 Virginians currently without health insurance stood at least a fighting chance of getting coverage through an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. They woke up Sunday to rumors, quickly confirmed, that that chance had virtually disappeared.
Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe has been battling with a Republican House of Delegates dead set against expanding access to Medicaid in Virginia, even though the federal government would pay 100 percent of the cost for three years, and 90 percent after that in perpetuity. Republicans argue that Medicaid already accounts for 25 percent of the state’s budget and would increase under the new health law.
McAuliffe’s ally in the fight was a state Senate controlled, just barely, by Democrats. The two houses have been in a pitched battle over a state budget for months now, with the Senate Democrats insisting that it contain a Medicaid expansion program and House Republicans just as adamantly refusing. The state seemed headed for a government shutdown until Sunday, when Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat representing a poverty-stricken district in the southwestern part of the state suddenly announced his resignation.
It was a mortal blow to the Democrats’ control of the Senate. The two parties were deadlocked at 20-20 in the upper chamber, but because the Lieutenant Governor is a Democrat, his party had effective control. Now that Republicans have an absolute majority in both Houses, though, McAuliffe is left without an ally in his fight to expand access to healthcare.
The district Puckett used to represent contains part of Wise County, where poor residents wait anxiously to get free medical care from a mobile clinic that visits once a year. As of Sunday, Puckett appeared poised to slide into a job with the state’s Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission – an appointment in control of the commissioners, who are majority Republican, and the chair, who happens to be a Republican member of the House of Delegates. The move also cleared the way for Puckett’s daughter, a judge, to be appointed to a higher position on the bench. (The State Senate, as a matter of policy, does not confirm judges closely related to sitting senators.)
Puckett’s move triggered a landslide of anger from his fellow Democrats.
“It’s astounding to me,” Del. Scott A. Surovell, a Democrat, told The Washington Post. “The House Republican caucus will do anything and everything to prevent low-income Virginians from getting health care. . . .They figure the only way they could win was to give a job to a state senator.”
“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially those in Southwest Virginia,” Gov. McAuliffe said in a statement. “This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.”
The McAuliffe’s sole hope is that he can still get a bill through the Senate with the help of three Republicans who are already on the record supporting the expansion. But with the GOP in charge of the the Senate floor, the chances of such a bill coming up for a vote are practically non-existent.
The change in control also cripples McAuliffe’s legislative agenda for the remaining three and a half years of his term.
As for Puckett, the mounting criticism forced him to withdraw his name from the running for the post with the tobacco board, which probably won’t be much comfort to the folks in Wise County as they stand in line overnight the next time the mobile health clinic comes to town.
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