Plenty of talk but little action in Virginia special Medicaid session

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RICHMOND, Virginia — There was plenty of talking but little action Thursday as Virginia state lawmakers held special session to discuss whether the state's Medicaid program should expand.

Republican leaders, who have stymied Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's efforts to expand Medicaid eligibility since he took office in January, said they were holding a special session to discuss Medicaid expansion because they promised they would.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle did little more than rehash arguments they've been making since January and the GOP-controlled House voted 64 to 33 to kill a modified expansion proposal after lengthy debate.

"Government programs meant to lift people out of poverty simply haven't worked," said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox. "Nearly 50 years after we declared war on poverty, things are getting worse not better."

Several Democrats panned the special session as a waste of time, and mocked Republicans for not having any alternative proposals.

"Where's your plan?" said Arlington Democrat Del. Patrick A. Hope. "We need to get to work."

The cost of a one-day special session is about $40,000 in per diems and mileage reimbursements, according to the House Clerk's office.

Speaking to reporters early Thursday, McAuliffe said he remains optimistic that Republican lawmakers will ultimately change their minds.

"Virginia should be a leader on health care," McAuliffe said. "We should be an engine, not a caboose."

Under the Affordable Care Act, states decide whether to expand Medicaid, with the federal government promising to pick up most of the cost. Whether to expand public health care to about 400,000 low income able-bodied adults has been the key issue of McAuliffe's tenure. The governor and Democratic lawmakers say the state's economy needs the infusion of federal funds to help cover the cost of the care already being provided.

Most Republican lawmakers say they don't believe the federal government will be able to keep its promise to pay and the state can't afford a large scale increase of an entitlement program.

McAuliffe conceded earlier this month that his ability to expand Medicaid on his own is limited. He unveiled an alternative plan aimed at encouraging adults and children already eligible for publicly subsidized health care coverage to enroll in various programs. The state and the federal government would also each pay about $80 million a year to cover the costs of new coverage for 20,000 uninsured residents with a severe mental illness.

The governor has also urged lawmakers to pass a modified expansion plan proposed by Republican Del. Tom Rust that emphasizes the use of private insurers. Rust is one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who have voiced support for expanding publicly funded health care, but the House easily defeated his bill. The Senate, where three Republicans are part of a majority that favors a modified Medicaid expansion plan, did not take up any Medicaid related measures.

Top Republican lawmakers have defended the special session, noting lawmakers needed to vote on a bipartisan plan to cut the state budget and to fill several judicial positions.

The House voted 93-4 and the Senate voted 35-2 to pass a bipartisan budget agreement that would help close a $2.4 billion revenue.

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