We are in the final stretch of the 2018 General Assembly Session. All attention has turned to Virginia’s next biennial spending plan. We have had an intense six weeks of prepping an amended budget, taking into consideration hundreds of hours of testimony to get here. The Senate Budget as presented has an approximately $650 million difference from the budget presented by the House of Delegates. The Senate Republicans call it a chasm with the House of Delegates — I call it a missed opportunity.
“60 Minutes” has aired a segment on the lack of healthcare in rural America. It is not only a disgrace but also embarrassing that some Virginians’ sole means of healthcare is an annual trip to the Remote Area Medical clinic. This is not a complete picture of affordability and access to healthcare in the Commonwealth. There are other Virginians, maybe even friends or neighbors who are one catastrophic illness away from bankruptcy. Illness does not discriminate. Nor does the cost of a cancer diagnosis or a chronic disease such as diabetes.
The House proposal would draw down approximately $2.5 billion per year over the biennium to expand coverage to over 300,000+ Virginians. These individuals earn no more than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — which equates to less than $17,000. Expanded coverage would provide some relief for emergency room care provided by our hospital systems. For example, a single parent, home-healthcare giver earning $11/hour would qualify for Medicaid coverage. These are working people — also known as the working poor.
The novelty of a work requirement is not an insurmountable hurdle to overcome. The House proposal includes funding for Training, Education, Employment and Opportunity Program that eligible Medicaid recipients would qualify for. Exemptions include children under the age of 18 or individuals 19 years old but enrolled in secondary education; individuals age 55+; individuals qualifying for medical assistance due to blindness or disability; individuals residing in institutions as well as individuals determined to be medically frail. Pregnant and recently postpartum women are also exempt.
Rejecting billions of federal dollars is a simple act with collateral damage reverberating throughout the Commonwealth. In the absence of the federal funding to relieve stress on Virginia’s existing obligations for its elderly, indigent, and vulnerable citizens, other elements of the budget plan have taken their hit. Those include pay raises for public employees (including teachers). Insufficient funding for our public colleges and universities leaves them nowhere to go but towards tuition increases. It troubles me greatly that the Senate budget has called for cutting $32 million out of higher education, including cutting new funding for student financial aid by half.
I voted for the Senate budget to get it in conference where the real work will begin before we close out the legislative session. The bottom line: the time has come for Virginia to come to grips with providing access to healthcare for our most vulnerable citizens, if not for humanitarian reasons, certainly it reflects on the philosophy as stewards of public funds.
The 35th Senate District is a very engaged citizenry. For years it has sounded the call to action on gun violence prevention. I applaud the many who came out to the Moms Demand Action vigil in Falls Church recently. The response from the Republican majority both nationally and in the Commonwealth is “thoughts and prayers are with you” but no action to end the slaughter of American children. I also applaud those who have visited the Capitol for advocacy.
Thanks to the chokehold of the NRA on Congress, military assault weapons can and are purchased by civilians every day. The U.S. is 4.6 percent of the world’s population but we are home to 43 percent of all guns not currently held by the military or police. With a slim Republican majority in both Chambers, SB 1 (a bill to ban the insidious bump stock) was defeated along party lines.
The time is coming when Washington and Richmond must address this carnage in the country. I believe if we don’t hear the message of a nation in mourning on an all too routine basis, the voters will do something. And I would encourage that passion at the ballot box come 2019 in the Commonwealth.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]