Obenshain Among Minority In Senate

Medicaid Debate Still To Play Out In GA

Posted: April 1, 2014

HARRISONBURG — For certain today, and maybe starting again next week, Sen. Mark Obenshain will be reduced to somewhat of a spectator as his colleagues consider a state budget and whether to expand Medicaid.

“It’s a little surprising we’re breaking down over this. Now, I’m not surprised, but at the beginning of session, or before session, I think most people … were expecting the [Medicaid] reform effort to move forward another year and we’d try to tackle the health care issue next year,” the Harrisonburg Republican said Monday. “I think that some people just wound up a little antsy to get started rather than letting some consensus build over the course of the next year, which was the plan last year.”

The 40-member Senate has 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, but it’s not split on the issue of expansion: 23 of them, including three Republicans, want a form of it as part of the biennial budget that starts July 1.

The Senate Finance Committee will hold a public hearing on the chamber’s $96 billion spending plan today. Obenshain is not on the panel, so he’ll return to Richmond for the full Senate’s reconvening of a special session scheduled next Monday.

During the General Assembly’s regular session in early March, the Senate approved on a 23-17 vote a budget that creates “Marketplace Virginia,” in which the state would use federal dollars to subsidize private insurance premiums.

The federal government will pay for states to expand Medicaid for three years, and then pick up 90 percent of the tab after that.

The GOP-dominated House of Delegates, opposed to expanding the program to up to 400,000 low-income Virginians, is worried, as is Obenshain, about trusting funding from Congress for a program that costs $7 billion a year in the state.

The House passed a budget last week without expansion, rejecting Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s idea from a day earlier of a two-year pilot program for expanding Medicaid outright, different from Marketplace Virginia.

And that is where Obenshain may be nothing more than a viewer: McAuliffe, who has insisted on a budget with expansion, needs 21 votes in the Senate for a budget, and the senator is not going to be one to side with Democrats as long as expansion is in play.

That leaves the three Republicans who supported Marketplace Virginia, including Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon. But it’s not yet certain if they will support McAuliffe’s outright expansion plan.

“It’s the most unusual bargaining method that I’ve seen in some time,” Obenshain said, adding that McAuliffe is “off to the races” trying to find a solution, leaving lawmakers behind.

However, for expansion supporters in the Senate, going back to a budget that includes only the private marketplace could be a problem, too, he said.

“If they do that, it’s a pretty strong repudiation of the governor’s efforts at exhibiting strong leadership,” Obenshain said.

McAuliffe touts the pilot program approach as giving Virginia flexibility to ensure that it works before taking it further. Obenshain, like many other Republicans, wants to see recommendations from the state’s Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission formed last year put in place first.

Local governments and school divisions wait, and hope for, compromise soon.

“We really owe it to Virginians to deliver a budget on time,” Obenshain said.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com

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