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Commentary: Virginia has chance to help citizens by expanding Medicaid

People called to public service have a common belief in helping their fellow men and women. That’s what inspired me during my 16 years in the Virginia Senate. Many of those I served with over the years shared that commitment to helping Virginians.

This spring, the men and women elected to the 2018 General Assembly have a prime opportunity to improve the commonwealth by passing a two-year state budget with a plan to help as many as 400,000 working class Virginians gain health insurance.

As a retired legislator who closely follows state affairs, I am encouraged by the bipartisan progress thus far. I have tremendous respect and admiration for my successor, Sen. Jill Vogel. I sincerely hope that she will support this initiative.

And I’m hopeful the Virginia Senate will work with the House of Delegates to negotiate a fiscally responsible state budget that helps people in hard-working families struggling to make a better life.

In this community, bringing Virginia’s tax dollars home to support health care access for low-income adults earning just $16,753 a year means 6,800 uninsured citizens in Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Fauquier, and Frederick could gain health coverage.

Those are the direct benefits. For people fortunate enough to have health insurance, improving health care access for vulnerable Virginians will positively affect many others beyond those directly helped.

Right now, Virginia is sacrificing $5 million per day and has lost more than $10 billion in funding by rejecting coverage expansion. By accepting these funds, Virginia could bring home $3 billion per year to help people and strengthen our economy.

That money would free up millions in the state budget for much-needed state projects like education and transportation.

Locally, it could support the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center, improvements to Interstate 81, our community colleges, and teachers for the sake of our children.

Expanded health care access through the Affordable Care Act will support jobs and protect community hospitals like Valley Health’s Winchester Medical Center, Warren Memorial, Shenandoah Memorial, Page Memorial, and Fauquier Health, which provide medical care to thousands of patients, and are among the region’s largest employers.

Dozens of studies have shown that states that expanded health care access experienced improved health outcomes and positive economic gains.

Increased health care access also means treatment for people with mental health challenges or substance addiction. Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio expanded Medicaid eligibility in his state to meet the needs of Ohioans experiencing such health challenges.

Too many Virginians have these unmet support needs. Since 2007, Virginia health officials have reported more than 7,250 fatal opioid overdoses. Nearly 300 of those have occurred in several Northern Shenandoah Valley communities.

The opioid epidemic, like any other public health challenge, can strike anyone. It doesn’t discriminate based on where you live, or the type of family you come from.

At this moment, Virginia has the opportunity to improve access to care for its people.

The House of Delegates’ Republican majority has developed a plan that protects state finances, helps people get health insurance, and promotes personal responsibility by including work rules for able-bodied Virginians so people are invested in their health. It’s passed with support from Republicans, Democrats, and has been endorsed by the Governor.

The timing couldn’t be better. The Trump Administration is favorably disposed toward state health coverage expansion plans with work and personal responsibility standards under the ACA, the law of the land that’s been upheld by U.S. Supreme Court and survived congressional challenges.

So far, 32 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid, including those led by Republican governors in Arizona, Indiana (under now-Vice President Mike Pence), and Kentucky.

Soon, the Virginia Senate will consider the compromise budget legislation and health care plan.

Like countless others, I pray the Senate reaches a compromise that helps vulnerable Virginians while also supporting our police, teachers, road workers, local governments, and so many others eager for a budget deal before the July 1 deadline.

Putting together significant compromise packages are rarely easy, but often worthwhile. I urge my fellow Republicans in the legislature to find a path forward on a budget with a health care plan that does right by Virginia and its people.

The Honorable H. Russell “Russ” Potts Jr. is a businessman who represented the Winchester area as a Republican in the Virginia Senate from 1992-2008, where he served as chairman of the Senate Health and Education Committee.