Medicaid expansion limbo may prove costly to VA taxpayers

SPECIAL SESSION: A special session will cost money, but so will expanding Medicaid — or not expanding Medicaid, depending on which lawmaker you ask.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA — Horns locked over Medicaid expansion, members of the General Assembly must return to Richmond on March 24 to finish what they couldn’t do in 60 days — finalize a budget.

When they do come back, that tab could cost taxpayers up to $40,999 a day, according to Beth Dingus, chief financial officer for the Virginia House of Delegates. That total comes from each day all 140 House and Senate members take their $180 individual expense allowances, and accept reimbursement for commuting to and from their districts.

Members only receive their allowances on days with floor votes, and historically there are only a few of those days in a special session. Still, $40,999 is comparable to two-thirds of median annual household income in Virginia, or roughly two years of tuition, room and board and fees at the public Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

It’s impossible to predict how much a special session could cost, since lawmakers may not travel to and from their districts each day, or could choose not to take a per diem. The last time the General Assembly convened a special session in 2012, the total cost rung up at $79,685.52 for three legislative days, according to Dingus.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Medicaid expansion debate, however, say the price tag for a special session is small compared to either expanding or not expanding Medicaid.

“The costs of a special session are minuscule as compared with the benefits that the commonwealth will gain by closing the coverage gap,” wrote Fairfax’s Democratic Delegate Scott Surovell in an email to Watchdog.org. “The real tragedy is that we did not resolve this fight at the conclusion of the 2013 regular session and instead created Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission as a ‘compromise.’ Taxpayers have already lost over $300 million due to our inability to finalize this discussion.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said Virginia is losing $5 million every day it doesn’t expand Medicaid, while other states are expanding coverage with federal tax dollars.

Republican Delegate Tim Hugo, also of Fairfax, had a different take on how a special session could be worth the cost.

“It will cost us money to do the special session, but if we just expand Obamacare right now, it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” Hugo said.

He said said he wished the Legislature could have agreed on a budget during the regular session.

“Ninety-nine percent of the budget is done,” Hugo said. “The budget for firefighters, teachers, police, that’s done. The big thing outstanding is the question about the Obamacare or Medicaid expansion.”

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, a Colonial Heights Republican, had a partisan, but simple solution: “The upcoming special Session can be very short if Governor McAuliffe and Senate Democrats agree to rightly take out Obamacare expansion from the budget,” he wrote.

Still, if Virginians have paid any attention to the battle over Medicaid in the General Assembly this year, a very short session doesn’t appear likely.

Staff won’t add to the cost of a special session, since full-time, salaried legislative staff members keep working as usual, and legislative assistants don’t receive an expense allowance during extra session days, as a “longstanding practice and custom of the General Assembly,” Dingus told Watchdog.org.

State senators earn $18,000 a year to work in the part-time General Assembly, and state delegates earn $17,640. Members earn most of their living from jobs in the private sector while the Legislature isn’t in session.

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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