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Va. Gov. Northam on WTOP: Medicaid expansion, rural broadband and more

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on WTOP Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)

WASHINGTON — As sign-ups begin Thursday for Virginia’s Medicaid expansion, Gov. Ralph Northam explained in the WTOP studios how residents can find out whether they’re eligible, and how to enroll.

In his monthly appearance on WTOP’s Ask the Governor program, Northam pointed residents to CoverVa.org, saying the website also had the phone numbers people need if they have questions.

In his one-hour appearance, Northam also addressed the Pittsburgh shootings, broadband for the rural areas of the commonwealth, the potential Amazon relocation, next week’s midterm elections and more.

Medicaid expansion

Northam said the expansion of Medicaid, years in the making, would potentially cover 400,000 Virginians. They can sign up starting Thursday for coverage that would begin Jan. 1.

He emphasized that if you’ve been turned down before, the requirements have changed. He added that the state has applied for the waiver that would establish a work or community-engagement requirement and was confident it would be approved.

Asked whether putting that requirement in place will cause chaos, Northam said, “There will be some chaos, but I think it’s something that will be doable.” He added that the requirement was “an important part of the negotiations” that made the expansion possible.

Northam also said that: “There will be grace periods. … I don’t want anybody to be concerned that if they lose their job they’re going to automatically lose their insurance.”

He then pivoted to his efforts at workforce development, particularly regarding education. “I think we need to get away from saying, ‘What kind of diploma does someone have?’ We really need to start asking the question, ‘What kind of skill does someone have?’”

“I want to help everybody get into the workforce,” Northam said. “… I don’t want to make people feel like they can’t have access to health care because of the work requirement.”

He emphasized that “I am well aware, as a physician, that we need to continue to address the quality of health care, access to health care, but most importantly the cost of health care. … We have got to as a country, and certainly in Virginia, wrap our arms around the cost.”

”So much of our resources are being spent on things we can prevent,” such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and more.

Rural broadband

Noting that the unemployment rate statewide is 2.9 percent, Northam added that it’s much higher in the southwest, the Eastern Shore and other areas. “We need to help rural Virginia,” the governor added, saying that broadband internet access was a critical component of job creation in those areas.

“There is no way in 2018 that a business can grow or a business can start” without broadband, Northam said, adding that it affects education too.

Calling himself “not a patient person,” Northam said he has two people in his administration working full-time on the project, and that a relationship between the private and public sectors would be necessary.

“[It’s] all hands on deck, and it is a top priority of mine,” he said.

Northam added that the official goal is for the entire commonwealth to have broadband within 10 years — “but I want it to happen a lot sooner than that.”

What are the incentives to lay down more cable?

“Different challenges for different regions.” Flat terrain vs. mountains, for example.

“It’s expensive. … That’s what we’re looking at now.”

Northam termed the problem “expensive,” and said that one possible solution to the cost problem could come from an internet sales tax, which states have recently been empowered to impose.

A measure will likely be passed by the General Assembly over the winter, and Northam estimated that it could bring $90 million to the state’s coffers. “What a great way to responsibly invest that,” Northam said.

After his appearance, Northam told WTOP’s Max Smith that, while previous discussions of a possible internet sales tax have centered around using the money for transportation, the idea of putting it toward expanded broadband was “certainly on the table for discussion,” and ultimately up to the legislature, who would have to pass any such tax first.

Amazon

The New York Times recently reported that Crystal City was the front-runner among 20 finalists for the second headquarters of online retail giant Amazon. Northam wouldn’t say whether that was the case, telling WTOP: “I think we’re in a good position. … There’s a lot of speculation out there.”

He did say “a lot of resources are being expended right now, and I think for good reason.” Northam called the effort “probably a 24/7 project” and that win or lose, he wants to be able to say “we did everything we can.”

The governor added that he was “tremendously impressed” by the communication he’d had with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in the efforts to lure Amazon to the region, as well as the cooperation he’d had in the General Assembly: “We have had support from both sides of the aisle on this,” said Northam, adding that both parties in Richmond “have come together” to put a “great package on the table.”

In the end, he said, “A lot of us are anxiously awaiting a decision.”

Metro

Northam also reacted to the news that Metro’s budget proposal, which will be presented Thursday,  would include expanded rush-hour service and cheaper unlimited passes – along with a request for another $87 million from the governments of the District, Maryland and Virginia.

“I think we do have the funding that we need,” Northam said of Virginia’s previously passed $154 million in dedicated funding for Metro.

He said WTOP’s Mark Lewis was “absolutely correct” that Metro should work within the existing dedicated funding, without dramatic increases in public financing.

Pittsburgh

Northam attended a service at a D.C. synagogue alongside Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser just days after the shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue that claimed 11 lives. “I was glad to be at the synagogue and worship, and just grieve,” he said.

He pivoted to the hatred and violence that have dominated the news of the past couple of weeks, and said responsibility starts at the top.

“We need to understand as leaders that when we speak our words can be powerful.,” the governor said. “… We on both sides of the aisle need to take a different approach and promote civility.”

“We need leaders that will embrace and promote inclusiveness,” Northam said. “Our society is diverse and becoming more diverse every day,” he added: “Fear-mongering … is not what this country needs right now.”

He added, “We need to take a step back and look at civility. We need to ask ourselves where the hatred is coming from. .. As a pediatrician, I take care of babies and young children, and you don’t see that hatred in them. You see love and hope.”

Northam called the shootings further evidence of what he called a “proliferation of guns in this country.” He noted that bills were introduced in the General Assembly to ban bump stocks and set up universal background checks “Every one of those pieces of legislation was defeated without any discussion” on the first day of the session, Northam said.

He pointed to next week’s elections as a chance to force change: “When you can’t change people’s minds, sometimes you need to change the seats.”

The election

Northam said on the air that he was optimistic about his Democratic Party’s prospects in next week’s elections, saying after his appearance that “as many as four” U.S. House seats in Virginia could flip from the Republicans to the Democrats.

“I think we’re looking for a good day,” Northam said, adding that voters are “not going to continue to condone what’s going on in Washington.” Referring to recent Republican ads terming the caravan of migrants an estimated 900 miles from the U.S. border an “invasion,” Northam said, “To talk about an invasion – well, that’s not an invasion; it’s people looking for a better life.”

After what he called a 2016 election dominated by “bigotry and hatred and discrimination and misinformation,” Northam said “we saw so much energy and enthusiasm” in last year’s Assembly elections, and he saw the same kind of enthusiasm so far this year, in which a large number of absentee ballots have already been cast. “I think the Blue Wave is gonna continue.”

Halloween

Northam said he would dress as a Virginia governor from 1813, when the governor’s mansion was built. He added that his wife, Pamela Northam, and their dog, Murphy, would dress in period garb as well.

WTOP’s Max Smith contributed to this report.


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