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Virginia lawmakers put off budget, Medicaid debate

(AP) Virginia senators put off debate May 22 on the state budget and whether to expand Medicaid, but pledged to settle the issue next week.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment said he expects the upper chamber to pass a budget next week, and it is likely to include Medicaid expansion.

“I think there’s a probability it will pass. The question is: In what form?” Norment said.

Pro-expansion lawmakers have a majority in both chambers, but Senate Republican leaders have so far delayed a full floor vote. Norment said lawmakers need another week to study a revised budget plan released May 21 by pro-expansion Republicans in the House and Senate.

Norment’s announcement that the Senate would meet next week to take up the budget instead of voting on it May 22 drew heckling from pro-expansion advocates watching in the gallery and criticism from House GOP Speaker Kirk Cox and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Democrat, said he had been willing to break with Senate tradition to force a full floor vote, but was also willing to wait one more week in order to preserve legislative norms. But he said next week is his limit.

“We cannot go any longer with this,” Saslaw said.

If the Senate passes Medicaid next week, it will mark the end of a protracted battle over whether Virginia should expand the publicly funded health care program for the poor. The GOP-led House has already approved a budget that includes Medicaid expansion and Northam has made expansion a top legislative priority.

Democrats have pushed for years to expand Medicaid, saying Virginia should not pass up the roughly $2 billion in extra federal funding the program will bring to the state. Republicans had been near-united in blocking past expansion efforts, saying the long-term costs were unsustainable.

But a GOP-led Congress’ failure to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, as well as unexpectedly large gains by Democrats in last year’s election, helped spur several state Republicans to flip positions this year. Virginia was the first state to see its state legislature reshaped by an anti-Trump wave.

Medicaid has grown to become the largest government health insurance program, now covering 1 in 5 people in the U.S. Under Obama’s health law, states got the option of expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income adults.

Virginia would become the 33rd state to approve Medicaid expansion, according to a tally from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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