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McAuliffe: Mental health needs a ‘fix’

RICHMOND—Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe expects changes to Virginia’s mental health system in the upcoming state budget process and legislative session.

McAuliffe said he has talked to outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell about putting more money for state mental health services into the budget, after last month’s high-profile case in which state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son, for whom an emergency psychiatric bed had not been found, stabbed Deeds then shot himself.

“Obviously the system didn’t work” in that case, McAuliffe said, speaking during the Associated Press’ annual “AP Day at the Capital” session for reporters and editors. “It is going to need more money, absolutely. I support that. Obviously it didn’t work, and we need to fix it.”

McAuliffe said he has assembled a task force of people who are well-versed in mental health to come up with policy recommendations in that area for his new administration, and that he’d wait for their recommendations before proposing ideas on mental health issues.

Health issues are likely to be among the dominating issues in the General Assembly session that starts next month.

The Deeds situation is shining a spotlight on mental health needs at the community level. In another panel discussion after McAuliffe’s speech, other lawmakers said they expect mental health policy to get a lot of attention.

“It’s going to be a significant issue,” said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R–Augusta.

Situations like the one faced by the Deeds family, Hanger said, happen “way too often throughout the commonwealth.”

“Have we done enough? Definitely not, and I think there will be a call for more money, and appropriately so,” Hanger said.

The other big health issue this session will be Medicaid and the federal Affordable Care Act.

McAuliffe campaigned on a promise to push Virginia to expand Medicaid eligibility, something he and other proponents say would provide health coverage for up to 400,000 more people, easing a burden of uncompensated care from providers and creating new jobs.

He reiterated that vow on Wednesday.

“There is no excuse for denying hundreds of thousands of our neighbors access to lifesaving health care,” McAuliffe said.

He said lawmakers who have thus far opposed expansion “insist on sending our federal tax dollars to other states,” a reference to the fact that under the ACA, the federal pays for 100 percent of the costs of expansion for the first years and 90 percent thereafter.

A New York-based group called the Commonwealth Fund is releasing a new study today that says Virginia would lose a net of $2.8 billion in federal tax dollars over the next few years by not expanding Medicaid.

The study says that since general federal taxes paid by individuals go to pay for Medicaid, those states not taking the additional federal dollars for expansion are forgoing some of their taxpayers’ money.

“Taxpayers in states not participating in the Medicaid expansion will bear a share of the cost without benefiting from the expansion,” the group’s news release said.

Del. Bob Marshall, R–Prince William, who was at AP Day to participate in a panel discussion, doesn’t buy the argument that rejecting Medicaid expansion sends Virginia dollars elsewhere.

“The money doesn’t go to other states if we don’t claim it,” Marshall said, saying that money goes back into the federal treasury.

Whether to expand Medicaid is not a decision McAuliffe can make unilaterally. A legislative group, the Medicaid Reform and Innovation Commission, has that job.

The MIRC has set its next meeting for Dec. 17 in Richmond.

“We are looking for a solution, a political solution a grand bargain, if you will, that will allow us to go forward,” Hanger said during discussion of Medicaid expansion on Wednesday.

Hanger is the MIRC’s chairman and favors expansion. Del. John O’Bannon, R–Henrico, is also on the MIRC and doesn’t support expansion.

He said opponents of expansion simply don’t trust the federal government’s promise to pay for most of the costs.

But, O’Bannon said, lawmakers on both sides of the issue are still working on it.

“I don’t think we’re at an impasse,” he said. “I think I’d call it a work in progress.”

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028