Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling on Thursday broke ranks with Republican leaders and backed expanding Virginia’s Medicaid program, while a House of Delegates committee voted to give the state a role in operation of a new federal health benefits exchange.
Bolling’s announcement of support for Medicaid expansion on Thursday gave new momentum for the initiative days before the General Assembly money committees are scheduled to act on amendments to the budget that would expand the health care program to an estimated 250,000 additional Virginians on Jan. 1.
At the same time, the House Commerce and Labor Committee voted to give the State Corporation Commission authority over health insurance plans that will be sold on the new federally run exchange in Virginia next year, as well as oversight of “navigators” who will help people choose health plans on the exchange.
“Whether we like it or not, these exchanges are coming,” Del. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, told Republicans opposed to carrying out the federal law. “If we don’t authorize (the SCC) to take these actions, their hands are tied.”
The committee voted 15-5 to give the SCC and its Bureau of Insurance authority to enter an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to certify insurers and manage plans offered on the exchange. Similar legislation is pending on the floor of the Senate.
The House panel also voted 14-6 to give the SCC authority to ensure that so-called navigators certified by the federal government follow state insurance laws in reaching out to consumers.
“The bills provide important protections for Virginians, and I’m glad the majority of the committee recognized the need to move forward,” said Jill A. Hanken, senior attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
Hanken also lauded Bolling as being “right on the money.”
Bolling previously had opposed expansion unless Virginia could be certain that it could afford its share of the costs and that the state would be allowed to make major changes in its Medicaid program.
“However, in recent months, we have developed a more complete picture of the overall business case for Medicaid reform and expansion,” he said in a letter to legislative leaders, “and I believe the mounting evidence supports moving forward with expansion, subject to other ability to obtain waivers from the federal government to implement critical Medicaid reforms.”
Bolling said he was persuaded by new state estimates showing the costs of expansion to be dramatically lower and the savings significantly greater than initially predicted, as well as providing the potential for creating 30,000 jobs from billions of dollars in federal spending that otherwise would go to other states.
J. Tucker Martin, spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, said the changes have to come first. “The governor believes the entire program needs to be reformed and improved before a costly expansion is considered.”
Republican legislators in both chambers have introduced budget amendments that would allow expansion and changes to proceed simultaneously, and the McDonnell administration is working quietly with federal regulators toward the same goal.
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