Interfaith speakers hope for Medicaid expansion

John D. Copenhaver, vice-chair of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and member of the Valley Interfaith Council, holds a copy of the Medicaid Chartbook during a news conference Friday afternoon inside the chapel at Winchester Medical Center. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — As the Virginia General Assembly prepares to go into session and pass legislation, Mark Merrill, CEO of Valley Health, and a group of speakers from the Valley Interfaith Council had a message: expand Medicaid.

In a news conference on Friday, Merrill described Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act as important in providing patients access to healthcare.

“Three attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act–the American Health Care Act, the Better Care Reconciliation Act and the Graham-Cassidy Bill–did not pass,” Merrill said. “And why was that? Because I believe our elected leaders are hearing that our nation has begun to embrace the fact that universal access to healthcare is important.”

Merrill said that it was important, economically, for Americans to be able to afford to receive health care.

“Having a healthy workforce and having a well-educated workforce, I believe, are two important elements of success,” Merrill said.

A group of interfaith speakers from the Valley Interfaith Council also defended Medicaid expansion, speaking mostly on religious grounds.

The Valley Interfaith Council and the affiliated organization, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, have focused efforts on trying to expand Medicaid in Virginia for three or four years, according to John Copenhaver, the vice-chair of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and a member of the Valley Interfaith Council.

Last year, Copenhaver said, it was the group’s “number-one priority.”

During those past three years, Virginia did not expand Medicaid; it remains one of 18 states that has not expanded Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Copenhaver was optimistic that a swing in the 2017 General Election toward Democrats could make Medicaid expansion come to Virginia soon. (In the 2017 General Assembly, there were 34 Democrats and 66 Republicans; the 2018 General Assembly is set to have 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans, although recounts could affect those numbers.)

Copenhaver added that he hoped that some research The Commonwealth Institute, which analyzes the effect economic issues have on poorer Americans, recently released into Virginia’s Medicaid program could help spur the state into expanding Medicaid.

“We believe that with this study and maybe a bit of a more bipartisan house, there can be more of a bipartisan cooperation to help us address and maybe this year be able to create something that helps cover the gap between those who are covered and who aren’t,” Copenhaver said.

Medicaid expansion has brought about political battles across the United States, echoing the battles surrounding the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act plays a role in Medicaid expansion, as well: the legislation provides funding for states that decide to expand Medicaid.

Copenhaver admitted that discussions surrounding Medicaid have previously gotten stuck in the politics, citing discussions he said he’s had with Republican leaders.

“The whole idea of Medicaid expansion is kind of a no-go, sort of a political landmine,” Copenhaver said.

Meanwhile, only eight of the 33 states that have expanded Medicaid did so after January 1, 2014, the date when federal funding for Medicaid expansion began under the Affordable Care Act.

But Copenhaver was nonetheless optimistic that the expansion could occur.

“We don’t have to accept it the same way other states have done it,” Copenhaver said. “But if we can get our legislators on a way to agree to it together, in a way that’s appropriate for Republicans and Democrats–that’s what we’re hoping for.”