To garner support for Medicaid, adopt 'the Virginia way,' says Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia welcome sign
Healthcare doesn't have to be a partisan issue, said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, M.D., at AHIP's National Conference on Medicaid on Thursday. (Getty/FotoMak)

Gov. Ralph Northam likes to do things “the Virginia way,” an approach he describes as prioritizing the best interests of citizens over party politics.

That's the approach he adopted this past summer when he signed a bipartisan bill to expand Medicaid. In fact, Northam would prefer to get politics out of healthcare entirely.

“It’s not, as I say, brain surgery … [to] come up with a plan that really works for all Americans,” said Northam, who was a pediatric neurologist before entering politics, at AHIP’s National Conference on Medicaid on Thursday.

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That’s not to say Virginia expanded Medicaid overnight. The governor made a concerted effort to communicate with representatives from rural parts of the state—areas that never truly recovered from the Great Recession, he said.

By expanding Medicaid, “we can help rural Virginia. We can help your hospitals. We can help people be more productive if they’re healthy. We can help them get jobs,” he recalled telling Republican state legislators from rural districts. In time, they agreed it was the right move.

On Thursday, Northam also announced that Virginia would begin accepting applications on Nov. 1 for 400,000 residents newly eligible for Medicaid.

RELATED: Rural states have the most to gain with Medicaid expansion, study suggests

There is evidence that understanding Medicaid is key to supporting it, not just among politicians but among the broader populace.

Later that day, conference-goers heard from John Cipriani, vice president of research at Global Strategy Group, who presented GSG’s recent findings on this very topic. GSG provided voters with just two sentences defining the program in simple terms. This brief definition alone increased favorability of the program 9% among Democrats, 13% among Independents, and 14% among Republicans.

In fact, subgroups of Republicans who originally disapproved of most of the program saw the largest leaps in approval after receiving the definition, including males, those age 65 or older, and self-described conservatives.

The study also found that voters’ perceptions of the program can improve if they understand who it covers (one in five Americans, including veterans, children, and people with disabilities) and that it’s a safety net, includes mental health services, and promotes job growth.

RELATED: In states without Medicaid expansion, poor more likely to go without medical care, GAO study finds

At the same time, voters who associate Medicaid with fraud, limited or low-quality care, high costs, or coverage for the “wrong people” (e.g., able-bodied adults) tend to disapprove of it.

The information could be critical to politicians running in this year's midterm elections, in which healthcare has become a central issue for voters. Kelly Hall, director of health policy and partnerships at The Fairness Project, recommended that Medicaid advocates use apolitical, “person-focused” messaging.  

“There’s not that many dyed-in-the-wool Medicaid haters out there,” Hall said.

And as the expansion helps more people in both red and blue states, she added, the less it will be a divisive third rail.

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