Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

saslaw-fcnpThe Commonwealth’s legislative season is now fully in the rearview mirror and all eyes are now on the statewide primaries to be held June 13 of this year. Note that the deadline to update your address or to register to vote in the primaries is May 22. I encourage you to visit the Virginia Department of Elections website at elections.virginia.gov, as they have an updated and robust page dedicated to the upcoming elections.

Looking locally, Metro continues to make great strides with their railcar modernization program. The ongoing retirement of Metro’s oldest and least reliable railcars has accelerated in 2017, and GM/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld reports that all old railcars will be retired by the end of this year. This is excellent news for riders in our region, as the retirement of old railcars means that the future base of railcars will run longer without maintenance issues and be more predictable. Metro noted that last month customers arrived “within five minutes of their expected arrival time about 90 percent of the time.” Kudos to an organization that has had far too many ugly headlines in recent years but now seems to be righting the ship.

Mental health and behavioral services reform in the Commonwealth is an issue that I have written about before and one that remains at the forefront of the broader healthcare conversation. Virginia has made some improvement in the past few years with regards to the quality and quantity of services offered, but there is still much work to be done. The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) reports that the state’s mental health hospitals are under an unprecedented strain as admissions have spiked more than 50 percent in the past few years. Several of the state’s hospitals routinely exceed 95 percent occupancy, creating a unsafe environment for both patients and staff. We simply must do better to ensure that all citizens in need can receive treatment in a timely fashion.

The growing opioid and substance use epidemic nationwide and here in Virginia is a separate problem but one that often intersects with mental health and behavioral services. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health notes that a whopping 585,500 Virginians are in need of help for a substance use problem but are unable to receive treatment. Per DBHDS, our system of locally-run community services boards are only able to assist 30,000 people per year. Despite the bleak portrait, Virginia is moving itself to the front of the pack on addressing this devastating epidemic. The state allocated an additional $1 million for treatment services to pair with $5 million of federal money. More importantly, an additional $6.2 million was allocated for same-day access to the aforementioned community services boards. These new monies, in combination with better integration between the state and localities, promises to start turning the tide on this public health crisis.

It is unfortunate that the root cause of many of our health issues in Virginia is a lack of consistent access to quality and affordable healthcare. Another legislative season has come and gone and Virginia once again remains one of 19 states that refuses to adopt a provision that would see hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens gain access to such care. That provision is of course Medicaid expansion. Currently, more than 400,000 low-income Virginians are denied access to health care because of the GOP’s stubborn opposition to Medicaid expansion. A look at the facts and numbers surrounding the issue make it clear that their opposition is purely political. We know that it is exponentially more expensive to provide care for the uninsured than it is to provide them adequate Medicaid coverage. We know that outside of the Virginia State Capitol, bipartisan agreement on this issue does exist – witness the strong show of support for expansion by Chambers of Commerce across the state. But rather than make a sensible public policy decision that would benefit those most in need, my colleagues across the aisle seem content to leave $5 million of federal money on the table every day merely to score political points. I ask you to remember that when you head to the polls next month and again in November.


Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at district35@senate.virginia.gov.