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Northam Talks Healthcare Expansion, Underlying Conditions

Man at podium next to ASL interpreter
(Screenshot: VPM News)

Editor's Note: The governor's office says he misspoke in identifying House Bill 735, and meant to say House Bill 795. We've updated reference to the bill number in this story.

Today, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a new task force to work on improving health care, expanding access, and reducing costs.

During his regular coronavirus briefing, he said the group would build on the increase in insurance coverage that began in 2019 with Medicaid expansion. Northam said more than 421,000 people have gained coverage since expansion, and many received care to treat underlying health conditions that exacerbate COVID-19.

“More than 60,000 people have received treatment for high blood pressure, more than 33,000 were treated for diabetes, 14,000 for asthma, and nearly 10,000 treated for COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Northam said. “Access to affordable health treatment is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has amplified economic, health, and social disparities.” Since the state of emergency declaration in March, Northam said almost 30,000 adults have enrolled in Medicaid, and an additional 23,000 children.

Northam said costs have been lowered under his administration, citing the creation of a state-based health insurance exchange and a reinsurance program designed to reduce premiums by 20%. And though he praised the General Assembly for legislative actions like a ban on “balance billing,” or high out-of-network charges by insurers, he also defended a veto of three bills, Senate bills 235 and 861, and House Bill 795, intended to reduce some costs.

“Those bills would address health insurance costs concerns for targeted segments of the population but in doing so would increase the cost of insurance for sicker Virginians in the marketplace,” Northam said.

Work remains to lower costs, Northam said, and that’s what the new task force will focus on. He said they will “continue identifying ways we can reduce cost and improve the quality of healthcare coverage for all Virginians, regardless of how they get health insurance.”

If you need medical attention, go to the doctor, Northam said, noting that Medicaid now covers treatments for substance use disorders too. Drug overdoses have increased statewide since the pandemic, and Northam said he was worried that we’d lost sight of an ongoing crisis.

“In Roanoke County, for example, dispatchers have responded to twice as many fatal overdoses in the first five months of this year than they did in all of 2019,” Northam said. “The northern Shenandoah region has also seen a substantial increase in overdoses both fatal and non fatal when compared to the same time last year. As a physician, these reports are very, very concerning to me. While we fight the COVID-19 pandemic we cannot lose sight of ongoing public health emergencies like the opioid and addiction epidemics.”

While in-person recovery groups are on hiatus, Northam said remote meetings are available, and many are listed on the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services website.

In addition, the governor also gave an update on yesterday’s election: Some 55,000 used absentee ballots, versus fewer than 1,700 in 2016. The deadline to request a ballot for the June primary is June 16 at 5 p.m., and though they’d take every precaution possible with polling site safety, Northam said he encourages everyone to vote absentee if they can.