RICHMOND, Va. - This week's groundswell of political change in Virginia has improved the odds of Medicaid expansion becoming law there. The long-stalled liberal priority gained new life after Democrats nearly wiped out Republicans' overwhelming majority in the House of Delegates.
For years Medicaid expansion, a key part of former President Barack Obama's health care law, has been a non-starter in the Old Dominion. Republicans, who controlled two-thirds of Virginia's House seats, have fiercely rejected expansion. Democrats have only made perfunctory pushes on the issue since 2014, when they lost a months-long showdown with the GOP.
That all changed Tuesday as Democrats won at least 15 House seats. Control of the chamber is still up in the air as a couple of close races have yet to be called — an outcome few but the most optimistic Democrats were expecting.
Democratic House Leader David Toscano said the election has "totally changed the dynamic" on Medicaid expansion, shifting it from a lost cause to something with serious momentum.
"It's not dead on arrival anymore," he said.
Toscano said expansion is by no means guaranteed but he believes Democrats could swing the needed handful of Republicans even if the GOP maintained slight control of the House.
Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, who made Medicaid expansion a part of his campaign platform, said Wednesday he's eager to work with GOP lawmakers to get it approved. Republican state Sen. Emmett Hanger has previously expressed support for expansion. That theoretically provides enough votes to get it passed in the narrowly spilt state Senate.
But Republican leaders in both chambers said Thursday the election has not changed their opposition to the expansion. They say it would be fiscally irresponsible, even with the federal government promising to cover most of the new costs.
"Free and guaranteed money from Washington is neither free nor guaranteed," said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Republican House Leader Kirk Cox.
Supporters of Medicaid expansion, including the state's hospitals and much of the medical community, say it will boost the state's economy in addition to helping poor people. Julian Walker, spokesman for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said his group "stands ready to work" with lawmakers "to enhance coverage and alleviate the impact of uncompensated care of the state."
The issue is gaining traction outside of Virginia.
In a public referendum Tuesday, Maine voters defied their state's Republican governor and decided they wanted to expand Medicaid to some 70,000 citizens. Maine would join 31 other states in expanding the program. Similar referendum campaigns are planned in at least three other states.
At the federal level, Republicans have had little success trying to undo Medicaid expansion, despite President Donald Trump's campaign promises to "repeal and replace" his predecessor's law. GOP bills that would have repealed Medicaid expansion and limited future federal financing for the entire Medicaid program failed to pass Congress and drew opposition from some Republican governors.
Overall, about 11 million people in the country have gotten health coverage through the expansion of Medicaid.