April 21, 2014
Virginia legislators are still debating whether to expand the Medicaid program to as many as 400,000 people in the state using federal funds. It's the issue that has kept them from passing a budget.
People on both sides of the argument got a chance to be heard in Charlottesville on Monday.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) held a town hall meeting at the Albemarle County Office Building. Delegates Rob Bell and Steve Landes, who are both opposed to Medicaid expansion, explained their stance and answered questions from a packed crowd.
"Health care is a passionate issue. There's no question about it," said Sean Lansing, Virginia State Director for AFP. "The reality is, 8.1 million Virginians -- no matter how they feel about expansion -- rely on a state budget from the government every year."
Democrats have pushed for passing a budget that includes Medicaid expansion while republicans have said they want to pass a budget, then take a deeper look at the program.
Bell says the current program is growing at a dramatic rate.
"Medicaid has grown in 1985 from 5 percent of the budget to its current 20 percent of the budget. It'll be 22 percent of the budget absent any expansion," he said.
Landes says that kind of increase is not sustainable.
"If we continue, the economy continues to grow as it is, we're not even going to be able to cover the cost of the current program," said Landes.
But dozens of people supporting Medicaid expansion packed the sidewalks outside of the Albemarle County Office Building ahead of the town hall meeting.
They are calling on lawmakers and others to get behind expansion. Their signs prompted honks from several drivers.
Among the crowd of expansion supporters were retired nurses Kate Fraleigh and Sarah Peaslee.
Peaslee says she saw plenty of uninsured people during her working days.
"If they got medical care a lot sooner, they wouldn't deteriorate into such long hospital care that costs a whole lot more," she said.
Fraleigh says expansion is the fiscally responsible thing to do since the states won't be picking up the tab initially.
"The federal government is going to be paying for this, so we're just leaving money on the table [if we don't pass it]," she said. "And the 400,000 that could get health care that can't get it now, we're paying for anyway because they come to the emergency rooms when they're really sick."
Chris Peyton also joined the crowd of supporters. He's rallying for lawmakers to extend coverage after a two-week stay in the hospital left him with a $140,000 bill.
"I just hope that everybody that drives by gets it through their heads, you know, this is very, very important," he said.
Bell says while he understands their passion for the program, essentially holding the state budget hostage is not the answer. He says he wants supporters to understand there are other programs in need of funding, too.
"Ladies and gentleman, there are things that I think are transcendently important that are not being held up because of the budget, and in fact are not happening, and after 13 years of trying, I will continue next year to try again without success probably," he said. "I understand you think it's important, that down in your soul you think this is the most important thing in the world...but please just for a nanosecond, one second, turn around and see how that feels to be on the other side."
If legislators do not come to an agreement during the special session to work on the budget, Virginia will face a state government shutdown July 1.