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Va. governor-elect reappoints health secretary

Virginia Gov-elect, Terry McAuliffe, right, gestures during a news conference with Virginia Secretary of Health Bill Hazel, left in Richmond on Wednesday. McAuliffe announced that he has asked Hazel to stay on as his secretary of health. AP photo (Buy photo)

By Larry O'Dell
The Associated Press

RICHMOND -- Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's secretary of health and human services will serve another term to help his new Democratic boss attempt to persuade a divided General Assembly to expand Medicaid.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe announced Wednesday that he is reappointing Bill Hazel to the Cabinet post. Hazel joins Secretary of Finance Ric Brown as McDonnell holdovers among the seven Cabinet members announced by McAuliffe, who still has five to go.

Hazel enjoys bipartisan support in the legislature, where he will lead McAuliffe's campaign to expand Medicaid to an additional 400,000 low-income Virginians under President Barack Obama's federal health care reform law. Democrats support expansion of the state-federal program while most Republicans -- particularly in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates -- oppose it because they don't trust the federal government to continue to fund its share of Medicaid in the long term.

McAuliffe, who takes office Jan. 11, made another pitch for expansion at the news conference on Hazel's reappointment.

"He will be an invaluable asset as we work with leaders of both parties to get this done," McAuliffe said.

Five Democratic state senators emphasized Medicaid expansion in a letter urging McAuliffe to reappoint Hazel. McAuliffe aides also provided letters from the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, HCA Virginia Health System, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the Virginia Health Care Foundation and the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards endorsing a second term for Hazel.

The reappointment was not popular, however, among abortion rights advocates who had hoped for a new slate of government health officials after four years of fighting the anti-abortion McDonnell administration. The two most high-profile battles were over mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion and strict new architectural requirements for both existing and new abortion clinics. McAuliffe has pledged to try to undo to the abortion clinic regulations recently approved by a Virginia Board of Health stacked with McDonnell appointees.

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said advocates discouraged Hazel's reappointment during meetings with the governor-elect's transition team and offered their own suggestions for the position. She said that while Hazel did not actively promote the ultrasound and clinic measures, he also did not speak out against them.

"You cannot allow politics and ideology to interfere with access to health care," Keene said. "We felt there was a disinterest or lack of engagement in the process."

Asked about those concerns at the news conference, Hazel said he takes his cue from his boss.

"One of the jobs of being a Cabinet secretary is to follow the governor and implement the law," Hazel said.

McAuliffe said he has made it clear that he will be a "brick wall" against abortion restrictions, "and I don't think anybody should have any concerns about that."

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia "will be watching closely to make sure that Secretary Hazel works to advance the governor's women's health agenda," the group's executive director, Cianti Stewart-Reid, said in a written statement.

At the news conference, McAuliffe praised Hazel as "an experienced, talented and dedicated public servant."

He also said that as an orthopedic surgeon, Hazel brings a helpful practitioner's perspective to health care policy.

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