- Associated Press - Friday, October 9, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Politically active conservative nonprofit groups in Virginia have a new health care-related target: regulations for approving or rejecting medical facilities’ construction plans.

Last year, tea party and conservative groups helped squash Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s plans to expand Medicaid, derailing the governor’s top legislative priority for the foreseeable future. Now they want Virginia to drop a decades-old requirement that Virginia hospitals get approval before proceeding with major construction projects or equipment purchases.

Supporters say the law, known as certificate of public need, hold down health care costs by avoiding unnecessary duplication of services.

But conservative groups say the law is to limit competition to the advantage of large hospitals and limits customer choice. They’re hoping to capitalize on their successes opposing Medicaid expansion to repeal the state’s certificate of public need law.

One group, Virginia First Foundation, has tried to make a support or opposition to certificate of public need laws a major issue in the ongoing legislative campaigns.

“In some ways this is Virginia’s Obamacare,” said Steve Waters, a board member of the organization.

Waters said his group is finalizing its game plan for the current general elections campaigns. Virginia First Foundation aggressively went after an establishment favorite during a hotly contested Republican primary earlier this year for a state Senate seat in the Richmond-area. Virginia First Foundation sent out mailers and produced a radio ad accusing former Del. Bill Janis of supporting “government-run health care” for supporting the certificate of public need rules.

Virginia First Foundation is a social welfare nonprofit that doesn’t have to reveal its donors.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative tea party group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, has also been a vocal opponent of Virginia’s certificate of public need laws. The group also does not disclose its donors.

Tyler Foote, the groups’ state director, said Virginia has some of the most burdensome certificate of public need regulations in the country.

“Virginians deserve more health care choices and greater competition, not less. We urge Virginia lawmakers to repeal these laws so patients can have access to the best medical care possible,” Foote said.

Virginia is one of about 36 states with certificate of public need laws or regulation as of 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

McAuliffe has formed a work group to recommend ways of improving the current set of laws, but has not taking a firm position on whether they should be repealed.

The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, a backer of the certificate of public need law and one of major political powers at the state Capitol, recently launched a significant public relations campaign to remind policy makers of the key financial role hospitals play in the Old Dominion.

Spokesman Julian Walker declined to discuss his group’s specific strategy on campaign spending but did not rule efforts aimed at specifically countering any spending done by Virginia First Foundation or other conservative groups.

He said the state’s current certificate of public need law protect customers and help offset costs hospitals cover treating the uninsured and underinsured.

“The alternative likely would destabilize our health care system and prompt even greater government intervention to correct problems created by repeal efforts,” Walker said.

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