By Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam
© February 25, 2014
Over the past few months, a lot has been said about the need to provide health care to the commonwealth’s most hard-working and vulnerable citizens.
As both a practicing physician and a policymaker, my support for Medicaid expansion is no secret. It is a simple fact that one’s quality of life significantly improves with access to affordable health care.
Imagine your child had a fever of 105 and was not able to be seen by a provider, or that you had to decide between paying rent and refilling a life-saving prescription. Hundreds of thousands of working Virginians make these choices on a daily basis.
I emphasize the word “working” because 70 percent of Virginians without insurance have at least one working member in their household. Closing the coverage gap is not a handout. It is intended for hard-working Virginians who don’t otherwise have access to health insurance.
As a physician, I am troubled by the fact that your economic status so greatly determines your ability to access and the quality of your health care. As a parent, I am heartbroken knowing that mothers and fathers throughout the state are making choices between putting food on the table for their kids and paying for their basic health care each month.
The children I see at my practice are fortunate, but there are too many others in similar situations who don’t have access to insurance through employers, cannot afford care out of pocket and don’t have access to charity care.
As a business owner, I cannot fathom giving $5 million, per day, to competing businesses. But in this case, that’s exactly what we are doing if we don’t expand Medicaid. We are sending Virginia’s tax dollars to our neighboring states so they can improve the health, well-being and productivity of their own students and workers.
Instead, we should be doing all we can to reinvest those tax dollars in our own communities. To be clear, these are tax dollars that the people of Virginia will continue to pay whether or not Virginia ever draws down our share from the federal government.
Meanwhile, our hospitals are struggling to close their financial gaps, when we could be creating tens of thousands of new jobs in the health care field. These are quality jobs that would help boost local economies and ultimately generate more revenue for the state.
Finally, as a veteran of the U.S. Army, I am incredibly frustrated that many of my fellow veterans fall into the coverage gap and don’t have access to affordable health care, despite their service to our great nation.
Contrary to popular belief, in Virginia there are more than 30,000 veterans who don’t have health insurance. These men and women risked their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq for our freedom, and now work in the private sector earning minimum wage, live under the poverty line and are not able to afford health care coverage for themselves or their families.
The least we can do for these brave individuals, many with serious medical conditions, is ensure that they and their families have access to affordable and quality health care.
If you refer to yourself as a patriot, profess to have good business sense, describe yourself as a well-intended person having compassion for your fellow man, or all of the above, I strongly encourage you to discuss favorably with your delegate and senator the benefits of expanding health care to the nearly 400,000 working Virginians currently in the coverage gap.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “of all the forms of injustice, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” In his speech at the March on Washington, he called on America to recognize “the fierce urgency of now.”
Now is the time for Virginia to put politics and partisanship aside and to responsibly provide coverage to those in need as soon as possible. The health of our neighbors, children, and veterans depends on it.
Ralph Northam is lieutenant governor of Virginia. He lives in Norfolk.