WILLIAMSBURG — Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe may be facing GOP opposition to his high-priority push to expand Medicaid, but on Wednesday he asked for help from what has been a traditionally Republican-leaning group – the state's business community.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, said expanding Medicaid was vital for the state's economy, as he invoked the Virginia Chamber of Commerce's previously expressed support of the idea with his call for businesses' help to convince the Republican-dominated House of Delegates to go along.
"We cannot have the best workforce when one-eighth of our people can only access health care through emergency rooms," he told the 600 plus people at the chamber's fourth annual Economic Summit at the Williamsburg Lodge.
"If Medicaid is not the business community's No. 1 priority in your conversations with the General Assembly, it is not going to happen," he said. "To the CEOs here, the effort will not pass if you do not take up the effort yourself."
Medicaid is the joint federal-state program that provides health insurance for the poor and disabled. Virginia's Medicaid system and its FAMIS system provide insurance to children from households earning up to twice the federal poverty level, which is $31,020 for a mother with one child. But only a small number of adults – parents or people with disabilities earning well under $10,000 a year – are are eligible. As many as 400,000 Virginians could gain coverage through a Medicaid expansion, nearly half the total of Virginia's uninsured.
Republicans object to the expansion, saying they don't think the state can count on the federal government's promise to cover 100 percent of the expansion for three years and 90 percent thereafter.
But expanding Medicaid is part of the chamber's new "Blueprint Virginia" plan to boost the state economy, which was introduced at Wednesday's meeting.
McAuliffe noted that the chamber's Blueprint shares his goals of improving workforce development and reforming the Standards of Learning to ensure students are learning the skills they need for employment.
"We can't afford to stop working to make sure our students are the best and the brightest," he said.
He said he also shared the Blueprint's goal of broadening access to preschool programs. He wants to make the state's preschool program, introduced by Republican Gov. George Allen in the 1990s and expanded by Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in the late 2000s, available to all.
"Every parent in this room remembers watching your child between birth and 1 year old, 2 years old, 3 years old, just soaking up information," he said. Preschool programs can make sure toddlers get what they need to succeed at school and later in life at work, he said, adding: "Let''s not be picking winners and losers at birth."
McAuliffe said education reforms, workforce programs and improving health care were all key to economic development.
The chamber's Blueprint touches on all those areas. It calls for a series of transportation projects as well, including widening Interstate 64 between Richmond and Hampton Roads, as well as investments in bridges and tunnels and improved port facilities here.
Before McAuliffe spoke, economist Christine Chmura told the group that Virginia is likely to grow more slowly than the rest of the nation unless it steps up efforts to teach and train its people for jobs in technical, scientific and health areas.
Chmura said federal across-the board budget cuts had hit Virginia harder than any other state, while the contraction of defense spending to peacetime levels would also slow the state's economy.
Political scientist Bob Holsworth told the group that its key goals of boosting workforce training could be a basis for consensus between Democrat McAuliffe and the overwhelmingly Republican House of Delegates.
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.