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Sun Gazette: Del. Hope Aims for Better Reception in 2012 for Medicaid Proposal Print


Created: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 7:38 am

Del. Patrick Hope heads back to Richmond in January to take another shot at creating a funding mechanism for Virginia's share of exploding Medicaid costs. Whether Republicans will give the plan an airing remains to be seen.

As he did in the 2011 session, Hope (D-47th) seeks to raise the commonwealth's cigarette tax from its current 30 cents per pack to $1.45, with most of the revenue used to pay for health-care needs of poor Virginians.

Similar legislation by Hope didn't last long in the House Finance Committee this year; in January, a subcommittee tabled the bill, effectively killing it.

But its patron hopes Republicans – who in 2012 will hold an even bigger House majority than they did in the past session – will look deeper and see his measure as pragmatic.

"There will be those who just see this as a tax, and don't care about the long-term savings or its implications for the taxpayer," Hope told the Sun Gazette. "This proposal is not for them. Rather, it is for Gov. McDonnell and Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel, as a way to offer a comprehensive plan to begin dealing with a real problem."

Virginia, whose economy initially was built on tobacco, long has had among the lowest taxes on cigarettes. Currently, only Missouri imposes a lower tax rate.

How many people would an increased tax impact? The Virginia Department of Health in 2009 estimated that about 19 percent of adult Virginians – 1.14 million – are smokers. Three-quarters of them smoke on a daily basis. Virginia had the 18th-highest rate of smoking nationwide, based on the 2009 figures.

Hope says that increasing the tax to the national average of $1.45 will help fund services to an ever-increasing number of Virginians who are eligible for Medicaid services. The cost of Medicaid-related health services in Virginia is expected to be $7.5 billion in 2011, up 143 percent in the past decade, with "absolutely no plan to address it," Hope said.

Whether the Republican leadership in the House of Delegates has any eagerness to go along with the plan remains to be seen. One veteran Richmond-watcher predicted Hope's bill would get about 15 seconds of discussion in a House subcommittee before being summarily nixed in 2012.

But its patron says economic reality will eventually force the issue to the forefront of legislators' minds.

"We literally can no longer afford to do nothing," Hope said.