Next week we will have a newly elected President of the United States. After this long and contentious campaign season, my guess is that everyone will be greatly relieved our nation will be opening a new chapter in history beginning January 20, 2017. Here in Virginia we are quickly turning our attention to the upcoming General Assembly Session which will begin the second Wednesday in January.
Topping the list of legislative priorities will be closing a $1.5 billion gap in our biennial budget. While unemployment is at a low of 4.0 percent (under the national average) our revenues lag as a result of lower compensation positions supplanting higher wage jobs. All of this is also compounded by the consequences of Sequestration. To address the problem at hand, the General Assembly will use “rainy day funds,” agency reductions and other savings to backfill the hole.
At the same time that we are unable to give state employees a pay raise (including our dedicated teachers and underpaid state troopers needing food stamps to feed their families), we are leaving staggering sums of taxpayer monies on the federal table. If we expanded in 2018, we would receive $2.7 billion.
It is no state secret that “Potomac Fever” has crept down to the Capital on the James River. Just say “no” long enough and we can keep the shell game going. To date, 32 states have taken advantage of providing healthcare coverage for low income earners. Did you know that 60–70 percent of the uninsured are working? The Department of Health and Human Services will reduce (aka cut) its expenses by $35 million as its share to close the budget shortfall.
Recently, we have heard about prisoners in our jails who have died in Fairfax County and in the Hampton Roads regional jail. To a large extent our jails are currently more like unlicensed mental hospitals, without qualified care providers and without a treatment plan for those most in need. The old adage of lock them up and throw away the key is failing a large segment of the population.
We have an opioid problem that is on the rise in the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, legal pushers of pain medicines are the most common pathway for the unsuspecting to become addicts. Medical professionals are quick to prescribe pain pills in volumes that are often more than sufficient to address immediate pain. The healthcare industry needs to reevaluate and begin to partner with law enforcement if we are to seriously address the problem at hand.
Currently, more Virginians are dying from their dependence on drugs than people die in car crashes. That’s a rather sobering fact as addiction knows no boundaries – gender, race, socio-economic status, education. Essentially, there are three options for the addicted person. Death is a likely and often the primary outcome.
A person can live with the addiction. Many families are ripped apart in a myriad of ways when faced with living with an addict. Oftentimes, children become part of the foster care system after they are removed from the situation. An unborn child when delivered faces a major detox with many days in the hospital. That may be the least of the child’s health problems. Along with trying to live with the addiction comes the very challenging problem of financing it. Often crime is the conduit that lands an addict in prison. This is where a detox will occur but not long term treatment which is critical to overcoming the problem.
Treatment is the third option an addict faces. Recovery is a long and often costly process. For many uninsured, this is not an alternative. When Virginia joins the other 32 states that have expanded Medicaid there will be new money that can be used to address this growing epidemic as well as the ability to repurpose existing funds that are being drained under the current system. Expanding Medicaid is the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.
Governor McAuliffe will once again put the federal dollars from Medicaid expansion in his revised budget. I challenge my colleagues to “get over it” and step up and embrace the opportunity. What we are currently doing is not working.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]