Virginia hospital group sets eyes on Medicaid expansion

Mark H. Merrill

As the Virginia state legislature convenes for its open session, a state hospital lobbying group is hoping that a narrow Republican majority could expand Medicaid in Virginia.

In a news conference in Richmond on Tuesday, Valley Health CEO Mark Merrill and other members of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association Board of Directors argued that expanding Medicaid would bring financial benefits to citizens, hospitals and the Commonwealth of Virginia as a whole.

“We can have a health care system where people have coverage, or we can have the episodic care that [people experience] today, where people will go to free clinics or to emergency departments or, worse, postponed care will adversely affect them,” Merrill said. “But certainly, we believe that expanded access will be beneficial to the commonwealth and the citizens.”

Expanding Medicaid, Merrill said, would help lower-income people be able to afford insurance. Merrill added that the expansion would decrease the amount of charity care hospitals would need to provide, lowering their operating costs.

“Increased coverage for the uninsured, we believe, will improve public health, strengthen the health care system, stimulate a vibrant economy and help reduce health care costs,” Merrill said.

Virginia hospitals pay over $1 billion per year in charity care and other uncompensated care, Merrill said. The amount of money hospitals have provided in charity care has increased over the past five years, according to a community benefits report from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.

“The issue of uncompensated care is particularly acute in rural areas, of which I have the privilege of working,” Merrill said.

But expanding Medicaid, part of the Affordable Care Act, has come under fire from Republicans, who have said that the move would be financially unsustainable for the state.

Last year, the Virginia state legislature failed to reach an agreement to expand the program.

A narrower Republican majority within the state legislature could help Democrats reach a deal to expand Medicaid. Currently, the Republicans have a two-seat majority in both the House of Delegates and in the Senate.

Still, such deals have been hard to come by, and in Tuesday’s news conference, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association opposed an additional tax on hospital profits that former Gov. Terry McAuliffe hoped would help pay for Medicaid expansion.