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Arlington To Lawmakers: Expand Medicaid, Social Safety Net Programs

County's legislative delegation heads to Richmond as 'underdogs' in Virginia General Assembly.

Virginia lawmakers who represent Arlington in Richmond have another tough year ahead of them.

The county's seven-member legislative delegation — Sens. Janet Howell, Barbara Favola and Adam Ebbin, plus Dels. Bob Brink, Patrick Hope, Alfonso Lopez and freshman Rob Krupicka, all Democrats — spent three hours Friday night listening to a long list of concerns and requests from individuals and organizations.

Overwhelmingly, people asked legislators to bolster funding for social safety net programs, particularly in the realms of mental health, substance abuse, developmental disabilities and brain injuries.

They asked, too, that the delegation work to expand Medicaid and implement the Affordable Care Act in Virginia, including establishing an information exchange for those searching for health insurance.

Broad support also was shown for efforts to restrict gun laws in the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

And the legal community was fairly well represented, asking the delegation to make sure Arlington County continues to have funding for three General District Court judgeships.

The delegation was a sympathetic audience.

Brink said afterward he hoped people who spoke Friday would carry their message down to Richmond, which would support lawmakers' efforts during the 46-day session.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle lawmakers face is tied to the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is now in the final year of his term, refused to establish a state health care exchange — forcing such a system in Virginia to be run by the federal government or a state-federal partnership.

McDonnell and top House Republicans, too, are against expanding Medicaid.

Arlington resident Paul Carver seemed to sum up the prevailing sentiment on the issue Friday night:

"It is immoral," he said. "It is contrary to the Judeo-Christian values that they claim to uphold. It is dumb, costly, and it will make us sicker."

Proponents of expanding Medicaid eligibility to 133 percent of the poverty level say doing so would give 400,000 uninsured Virginians access to affordable healthcare. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will pay for state Medicaid expansion over the next three years — and 90 percent after that.

Hope said those two issues would be his "highest priorities" in Richmond. Opponents have chosen their language carefully so far, he said.

"Their narrative is to oppose Medicaid without reforming it," he said. "The status quo is not sustainable. There has never been a better time to expand."

Both sides agree the federal safety net program for the poor and elderly needs to be reformed. Hope described the current situation as people "half in, half out" of the system, resulting in "episodic and expensive" coverage. The more uninsured people in Virginia, the more costly the burden of taxpayers who have to subsidize expensive emergency room treatments for those people.

Hope said expansion of the program could create thousands of jobs.

"We will actually come out ahead by expanding Medicaid," he said.

With Republicans in control of the state House of Delegates, one route proponents of Medicaid expansion see is through the evenly divided state Senate — which could see a more independent tie-breaker this year.

If such a measure can make it into the Senate's budget, then Howell's seniority could give Democrats an edge when the two chambers hash out an agreement, Ebbin said.

"We're the underdogs," he said. "But it's worth working on."

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