Virginia edges closer to Medicaid expansion, with some Republicans on board

This year the Virginia state legislature is closer to enacting expansion than it has been in the past, and the issue will be the sticking point as the legislature goes into a special session next month to hash out its budget. Virginia is among 18 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. 

Republican Del. Barry Knight from the Virginia Beach area calls it “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” He’s one of more than a dozen Republicans who voted to include Medicaid expansion in the House budget—along with a work requirement—this year.

It’s a big shift in the House position on the issue and comes after 15 seats flipped to Democrats in the so-called blue wave of last November’s election, which also saw the election of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

“On the big-picture issues, I think it was a reawakening and a call to look at things from a different perspective,” said Republican Del. Chris Peace, from the Richmond area, who also voted in favor of expansion.

“I think the House heard that message, loud and clear. I think the Senate still needs to listen a little bit,” Northam said.

The state Senate still has a strong bulwark against expansion, led by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who represents the Tidewater area in southeastern Virginia. Norment has come out against the House Republicans who want to expand. He reminds them that, despite a slim margin, Republicans are still in charge and could stop Medicaid expansion.

“I do think that the House of Delegates is waiting for that moment of lucidity and epiphany to realize that their majority is 51 to 49,” Norment said.

But opposition to President Donald Trump has energized Democratic voters, said Bob Holsworth, a former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He said he thinks expansion has a greater chance this year.

RELATED: Feds approve Kentucky waiver that requires Medicaid enrollees to work, pay premiums

It could pass in the Senate, he said, because of a potential wildcard: Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, from mostly rural central Virginia. Hanger has expressed support for some form of Medicaid expansion, and has a track record of voting independently, said Holsworth.

“What Hanger has said that’s very interesting ... is that if he decides to support some version of Medicaid expansion, he says, ‘There are a number of other Republicans who are going to go over with me,'” said Holsworth.

However, Hanger said he isn’t happy about a tax on hospitals that has been incorporated into the House’s budget to help pay for the state’s share of expansion costs. The tax accounts for about three-quarters of the over $400 million Medicaid-related gulf between House and Senate budgets.

If legislators don’t come up with a budget that includes Medicaid expansion, Northam has a Plan B. He said he’ll introduce an amendment to add it back into the budget. In the amendment process, the lieutenant governor, Democrat Justin Fairfax, gets a vote if the Senate ties. Fairfax said he’d be happy to vote to expand coverage to up to 400,000 low-income Virginians.

“There are so many people that we can help, and we have the means to do it if we expand Medicaid. We just have to have the political will to do it,” Fairfax said.

RELATED: Why the courts may overturn Medicaid work requirements

Medicaid expansion in Virginia would especially benefit low-income adults without children.

“An adult who does not have children can have zero income—can be totally impoverished—and they cannot get Medicaid,” said Jill Hanken with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

And a family of three with a total income of about $10,000 doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, she said.

“It’s hard to explain to them that they don’t have a choice, they’re not eligible for Medicaid,” she said, and they’re not eligible for subsidies for insurance on the exchange, so health insurance is out of reach. “And the reason is because Virginia hasn’t expanded Medicaid,” she said.

The special session begins April 11. The state needs a budget agreement by June 30 to prevent a government shutdown.

This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, local NPR member stations and Kaiser Health News.