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Governor seeks Medicaid expansion

RICHMOND—New Gov. Terry McAuliffe is wasting no time in pushing state lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility.

On his first full workday, in his first speech to the General Assembly, McAuliffe said he will seek a budget amendment that would force the Medicaid Innovation Reform Commission—a group put together in last year’s budget to study Medicaid reforms and the potential for expansion—to finish its work less than two months from now.

The MIRC was a compromise last year between expansion-supporting Democrats in the Senate and expansion-opposing Republicans in the House.

Republican House members on the MIRC have said they expect its work to take years.

Try seven weeks, McAuliffe said.

He said he’ll ask for a budget amendment—he isn’t allowed to propose amendments himself—to require the MIRC to wrap up its work by the time the legislature adjourns in March.

“The commission has done useful work, but our citizens need an answer, without delay,” McAuliffe said. “These families have been waiting long enough. It is time to get started.”

McAuliffe has made no secret of his support for Medicaid expansion, a prong of the federal Affordable Care Act. Under that law, if states expand Medicaid to cover more people, the federal government will pick up most of the tab.

“There must be no higher priority than health care coverage for more of our citizens,” McAuliffe said. “Across Virginia tonight, there are almost one million people who lack health insurance coverage. These Virginians are our neighbors, friends and constituents. … We can and must do better by these families, by our health care system and by our economy.”

McAuliffe says expanding Medicaid will bring federal tax dollars back to Virginia and help to cover the current expenses for indigent care.

“If we fail to exercise this option, we will forgo $2.1 billion annually in federal funding over the next three years. That is more than $5 million per day,” McAuliffe said. “This is simply a good deal for the states that choose to take it.”

He later told reporters that he wants to push lawmakers toward action.

“I put a goal out there that’s important to me,” McAuliffe said. “It is time to get it done, it is time to act. … I want to put a marker down because if you don’t, people will go on and on.”

Republicans are leery of expansion, fearing that the federal government can’t afford to keep its promise, and calling for changes to make Medicaid leaner and more efficient.

And they weren’t welcoming to McAuliffe’s effort to push them into action.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Chris Jones, R–Suffolk, said he’s “not in favor of that whatsoever.

“I can understand he campaigned on it,” Jones said. “[But] their job is not complete. We put them in place for a reason and we’d be opposed to that approach.”

Sen. John Watkins, R–Powhatan, who is more open to some action to cover uninsured Virginians, also called McAuliffe’s push “a little optimistic” and said the MIRC hasn’t explored all reform options yet.

McAuliffe also said he’ll push lawmakers on something else they’ve been reluctant to do—give the power to draw legislative district lines over to a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

As it is now, legislators themselves draw their own district lines, led by whichever party is in power and always drawn to benefit that party.

“Legislative districts should keep communities intact and not be drawn for the political convenience of members, regardless of whether they are Democrats or Republicans,” McAuliffe said. “We can join 13 states that have made this reform, and strike another blow for good government in the commonwealth.”

McAuliffe touched on other issues that may have trouble finding favor in the Republican-dominated legislature, such as giving the children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at Virginia colleges.

“I support offering the children of immigrants who have been living, learning and paying taxes in this commonwealth for years that opportunity to study at our colleges and universities,” he said.

“The General Assembly should not wait another year to pass the bipartisan Dream Act.”

But on other issues he discussed, he and lawmakers may find more common ground.

McAuliffe called for reforms to Virginia’s workforce development programs, to simplify them and cater them to where there are job openings.

He also said the state needs to help expand job opportunities for military veterans.

“Giving them the tools they need to thrive in the civilian workforce will give Virginia a critical economic advantage as we compete with other states and other nations,” McAuliffe said. “Many civilian jobs, from health care to energy to education, are ideally suited for Virginia’s veterans.”

McAuliffe called for reforms to Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, something Republican lawmakers plan to discuss in a press conference this morning.

“We should stop over-testing our children. We should examine essay testing and other ways to measure knowledge and cognitive reasoning. And we should free teachers to spend more time on new subject material,” McAuliffe said. “The SOLs have been a tremendous success for our state, but they are now a generation old and need to be modernized to fit the needs of today’s families and today’s economy. … I am optimistic that we can reform the SOLs in a way that maintains our high education standards, while encouraging innovation and creativity in the classroom.”

McAuliffe also said he’s told his secretary of transportation to work with state lawmakers on ways to prioritize road projects, given the influx of new revenues created by last year’s transportation reform bill.

“For every project, we have to ask one, whether its benefits are commensurate with its cost; two, whether the project can be executed on time and on budget; and finally number three, whether it has the support of local government and citizens in the affected area,” McAuliffe said.

He also announced he’ll push to reduce tolls on Hampton Roads’ Midtown Tunnel project, and that Carnival Cruise lines will return to Norfolk in 2015.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028