RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vowed Friday to bypass the General Assembly and expand Medicaid eligibility for about 400,000 low-income residents on his own, a move Republican lawmakers immediately promised to fight.
At a Capitol news conference, McAuliffe denounced leaders of the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, saying they are unwilling to help the state's poor.
"They have turned their back, time and time again," McAuliffe said.
His said staff has begun working with the federal government, insurance plans, hospitals and other groups on how to expand health care coverage for the poor absent approval from state lawmakers.
Republicans accused McAuliffe of throwing a "tantrum" and said they are willing to sue him in order to prevent a unilateral Medicaid expansion.
"The governor's attempt to usurp the constitutionally proscribed powers of the legislative branch is a dangerous threat to the rule of law, separation of powers, and foundation of representative democracy that we simply cannot allow," House Republican leaders, including House Speaker William J. Howell, said in a statement.
McAuliffe said he's consulted with Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring's office and believes there are number of ways to legally expand Medicaid without the General Assembly's approval. He mentioned a possible "public-private" partnership, but did not offer any other details.
The governor said he's ordered Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. William A. Hazel Jr. to present a plan for expansion no later than Sept. 1 on "how we move forward with health care in the face of the demagoguery, the lies, the fear and the cowardice that have gripped this debate for far too long."
Friday's back and forth between McAuliffe and Republican lawmakers is the latest round in a long-running battle over expanding Medicaid, which is a key aspect of the Affordable Care Act.
The Obama administration has offered to pay most of the costs of expanding Medicaid in states that choose to do so, but Republicans have argued that states would be saddled with the cost if the federal government can't keep its promise.
McAuliffe had tried unsuccessfully for months to persuade Republican state lawmakers to approve some form of Medicaid expansion. The stalemate led to a months-long impasse over the budget that threatened a state government shutdown. The deadlock was broken when a Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett resigned, giving Republicans control of both chambers in the General Assembly. The FBI is currently investigating the circumstances of Puckett's resignation.
McAuliffe said Friday that he would sign the budget passed last week by the GOP-controlled General Assembly, but with several line-item vetoes.
The governor also said he was making two vetoes to the budget related to the Medicaid expansion debate. One is a veto of an amendment to the budget inserted by conservative Republicans that is aimed ensuring the Democratic governor cannot expand Medicaid without legislative approval.
McAuliffe also said he is vetoing the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission "entirely." The commission as created last year as a political compromise to be responsible for dictating when if ever Medicaid expands. McAuliffe said the commission, which has so far blocked Medicaid expansion, is a waste of time.
Republicans said they will examine whether McAuliffe's vetoes are constitutional, and then act accordingly. The General Assembly can override a governor's veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers.
At the close of his news conference, McAuliffe said he was largely motivated by his meetings with low-income residents he's met while touring free health care clinics around the state.
"I go to bed every night with a pit in my stomach because of these people whom I've met, who are counting on us to do the right thing, and that's what drives me every single day," said McAuliffe. "We're going to get this done."