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Column: Expanding Health care Coverage

— In Virginia almost one million men and women go without health insurance. That is one million people who cannot afford to get a check-up when they feel sick, who cannot fill prescriptions after injury or emergency treatment, and who are one serious illness away from bankruptcy.

The full extent of this health care crisis is much less personal; uncompensated costs to state hospitals and lost labor for our small businesses drain billions from our economy, money from our pocketbooks, and essential funds from our state treasury every year. We have the opportunity to solve this problem. It is past time to expand Medicaid coverage to those who need access. Medicaid expansion is good public policy we cannot afford to ignore.

Republicans, led by the Governor, have claimed that Medicaid expansion will increase the cost of a bloated system Virginia cannot afford. The reverse is true. Stringent eligibility requirements have built one of the nation's leanest Medicaid systems, Virginia ranks 48th of 50 states in per capita Medicaid spending, and only those making 30 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to enroll in the program.

Now, we have the opportunity to build on our efficient system and expand medical access to rural and urban Virginians who have only seen that access decline for a generation. Expanding eligibility to include those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line — about $15,400 per year for an individual and $32,000 for a family of four- would allow more than 400,000 Virginians to pay for the healthcare they are already receiving for free at emergency rooms across the state. This means reliable health care for workers at the small businesses that can least afford to provide insurance and lower premiums for those of us whose insurance already subsidizes emergency room visits.

This expansion will cost money, $15 million a year over the next nine years according to the Governor's office. In return, over $23 billion will flow back to Virginia from the federal government, an investment that will strengthen our economy and create up to 30,000 jobs. During those same nine years, Medicaid expansion will actually save our state $300 million our public hospitals would have previously spent in unremunerated emergency room care.

If we choose not to expand coverage, we leave those 400,000 Virginians with no choice but to continue to avoid preventative care and visit emergency rooms as a last resort, leaving them in worse health — and our Commonwealth with the bill. Federal taxes Virginians already pay will flow out of our state, and give other Americans the improved healthcare and economic boost that we could have right here at home.

I am standing behind this Medicaid expansion. It is right for Virginia. It is right for Virginians. I hope you will stand with me, and with your help, we can ensure that financially responsible health care reform can begin to make Virginia an even better place to live.

Charniele Herring (D-46) represents Alexandria City in the Virginia General Assembly and serves as the House Minority Whip. For more information, visit www.charnieleherring.com or on twitter @c_herring.