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State, health leaders respond to Virginia's new budget

By Katie Demeria

The Virginia General Assembly's decision to pass a state budget without expanding Medicaid has left some local health leaders feeling disheartened.

While the Medicaid issue may not be fully resolved -- Gov. Terry McAuliffe has seven days to add his signature -- an amendment requires McAuliffe to gain legislative approval in order to make the expansion in the future.

Valley Health CEO Mark Merrill said the decision was "very disappointing."

"It will be financially disastrous for hospitals and health systems across the commonwealth," he said. "I think health systems will be making decisions, and when people say, 'why is my hospital cutting back on certain services?' they have to remember that this is part of it."

Merrill's disappointments were echoed by others backing expansion. In a statement, Democratic Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said the decision "moves the commonwealth backwards by denying 400,000 Virginia access to affordable health care."

Attorney General Mark Herring made a statement in which he said the new budget "fails to address the needs of Virginians."

Alternatively, Delegate Mark J. Berg, R-Winchester, said he was especially relieved they were able to pass a budget, considering the assembly had gotten close to its July 1 deadline.

"I'm also particularly pleased that we made it clear that there will not be Medicaid expansion," Berg added. "A vast majority of my constituents told me they did not want it."

In a statement, State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, expressed similar relief, pointing out that the assembly was able to avoid a government shutdown.

"The commonwealth has never gone without a budget. I want to keep it that way," Obenshain said in his statement.

Those on the other side of the argument, though, claim Virginia has missed out on an important opportunity.

The Shenandoah Community Health Clinic serves many of the uninsured in the area who would have qualified with expansion, according to Executive Director Pam Murphy.

"I feel very, very sad just because, as much as the free clinics try to do as much as they can for uninsured patients, there are people who die because they cannot access a surgery or some other service that we can't provide," she said. "That's what weighs really heavily on me."

The clinic had been considering taking steps to accept Medicaid if the state expands in order to help serve the many new insured patients. Now, Murphy said, that may not be a feasible option.

In addressing arguments against expansion, Merrill brought up the fact that many Republicans argue that the federal government cannot be trusted to reimburse the commonwealth for Medicaid expenses, as it promises.

"It's disingenuous that they think the federal government is not going to pay for it," Merrill said, pointing out that the state accepts federal funds for other programs, like defense programs in the Tidewater area and Social Security.

"There is such a dislike for the Affordable Care Act from certain segments, it doesn't matter the logic of [Medicaid expansion], it's more political. They just don't like the president's plan," he said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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