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John Watkins column: Both parties can champion health care reform

John Watkins column: Both parties can champion health care reform

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Access to health care is an important key to creating a high quality of life, and Virginia is on the verge of taking action that will raise the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of residents across the commonwealth.

For much of the past month, legislators have deliberated how to ensure health care is available to Virginians who need insurance but are struggling to afford private plans. These Virginians are generally members of working families, where household income for a family of four is about $32,000 or less per year.

Rather than expanding the size of government, Virginia has the opportunity to tap the private sector to increase coverage and improve the health of working families. In the course of doing so, this expanded coverage will inject more stability into Virginia’s health care system, easing the burden that has been absorbed into other Virginians’ insurance premiums.

Virginia already has a system in place, in the form of its managed-care Medicaid program, which has proven to be highly successful.

By coordinating with private-sector partners, we have been able to use tax dollars efficiently to connect vulnerable Virginians with primary health care providers before their medical conditions escalate into very serious and costly situations. Pairing these services with other programs that encourage self-sufficiency has helped lift up some of the poorest Virginia families, connecting them with jobs and creating a positive social and economic return.

Unfortunately, under the Affordable Care Act, too many Virginians have found themselves in the widening gap between being able to afford private health insurance and qualifying for Virginia’s Medicaid program.

This is a serious and growing problem, and it threatens real harm to families, businesses, and communities. Furthermore, Congress no longer appears capable of, or interested in, making substantive changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Virginia’s General Assembly has the distinction of being the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating legislative body. Its members are uniquely positioned to set aside the pettiness and rancor that too often contaminate national politics, and focus on finding common ground to solve policy problems affecting the public.

Fortunately, that is precisely what many legislators appear to be doing this year. The House of Delegates has proposed expanding Medicaid, and many senators have also expressed an interest in doing the same. While imposing a so-called “provider assessment,” as some legislators have suggested doing, could be counterproductive and would likely end up increasing the overall cost of care, there seems to be growing consensus in favor of incorporating important safeguards, including a provision that protects the commonwealth if the federal government breaks its promise to contribute at least 90 percent of the cost to expand coverage.

Requiring Virginia to start a program for recipients to pursue work or educational training, and also have an eye on treatment costs by contributing copayments, are also reasonable steps. And the commonwealth certainly must incorporate measures to protect against waste, fraud, and abuse.

Virginia has long been recognized as a great place to live and work. That is in large part due to the efforts of a legislature that has focused on finding practical solutions to complicated problems.

Using federal tax dollars to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program can be done in a way that supports the private sector, spurs job creation, and creates opportunities for men, women, and children across the commonwealth.

These are priorities that members of both parties in Virginia’s General Assembly can and should champion.

John Watkins, of Midlothian, spent 34 years in the General Assembly. He retired in 2016 from his seat representing Virginia’s 10th Senate District. Contact him at


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