- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Virginia will be the next state to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, Gov. Terry McAuliffe predicted this week, saying the massive wins by Democrats in the commonwealth on Tuesday make it all but certain the GOP will have to cave on its long-standing opposition.

For years, Mr. McAuliffe has tried to grab federal dollars that would help him extend Medicaid to 400,000 of the state’s poorer residents, only to by stymied by state Republicans.

But after voters elected Democrat Ralph Northam as governor and made huge gains in the House of Delegates, unseating some GOP leaders, Mr. McAuliffe said Republicans will have little choice next year.

“All the folks who fought me on Medicaid expansion, they all got blown out,” Mr. McAuliffe said at Mr. Northam’s victory party.

He said he’ll stick Medicaid expansion in his final budget and send it to the legislature, where he expects Mr. Northam to power it through.

“They can’t afford not to take it,” he said of state lawmakers. “It is here to stay and I think they are going to have to do it.”

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is heading in the opposite direction, saying he will refuse to expand Medicaid in his state unless lawmakers can find a way to pay for it without raising state taxes.

Voters backed a ballot initiative late Tuesday, 59-41 percent, that directs the state health department to expand Medicaid to roughly 70,000 newly eligible residents under Obamacare.

“Starting tomorrow, we will turn our focus to the quick implementation of Medicaid expansion. There can be no more delays,” said Robyn Merrill, co-chair of Mainers for Health Care, a coalition that spearhead the “yes” campaign.

Mr. LePage, a Republican who has another year left in his term, said a 2002 effort to expand the Medicaid rolls was fiscally ruinous, so he will force state lawmakers to make difficult trade-offs.

“Credit agencies are predicting that this fiscally irresponsible Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget,” Mr. LePage said. “Therefore, my administration will not implement Medicaid expansion until it has been fully funded by the legislature at the levels [the state health department] has calculated, and I will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”

Nearly eight years after Obamacare became law, the Medicaid expansion remains controversial.

As it stands, 31 states have taken the federal government up on the deal, which leverages generous federal matching funds to cover residents making up to 138 percent of poverty.

President Trump and congressional Republicans are trying to ax the expansion as part of their Obamacare repeal.

Those on both sides of the aisle were trying to digest the meaning of Tuesday’s votes.

The Republican Party of Virginia said inaction on health care is what doomed the GOP.

“Failure to repeal Obamacare hurt us as a country and that inaction specifically damaged our party with voters last night,” party Chairman John Whitbeck said in an email to supporters. “If no major items are passed in the U.S. Senate over the next year, the 2017 elections will be a preview of 2018 elections.”

But Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, said Mr. Northam’s opposition to repeal efforts made voters far more likely to support than oppose him.

Democrats’ efforts to expand Medicaid in Virginia could depend on several House of Delegate races that are heading into recounts.

The GOP also has a narrow, 21-19 majority in the state Senate, though prominent Democrats are hopeful that Republicans facing reelection in 2019 will look beyond Medicaid expansion’s ties to Obamacare and embrace it, considering Tuesday’s shocking results.

“Morally, it’s the right thing to expand for 400,000 people to get coverage, and economically, it’s crazy that we’re not using Virginia tax dollars for Virginia,” said Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat. “It may have to be called something different, but at the end of the day, I’m hopeful that either Gov. McAuliffe or Gov.-elect Northam will get it done.”

The votes could be there, since the party split is so close, according to Joshua Ulibarri, a partner at Lake Research Partners who handles polling for the Democratic caucus of the state House of Delegates.

“There are moderate Republicans who will support it if given the chance, but will the Senate leadership let it come to a vote?” he said.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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