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Republicans criticize Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's mental health care spending plan

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RICHMOND, Virginia — House Republicans and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe clashed Tuesday over a newly launched program aimed at helping low-income Virginians with severe mental disabilities, renewing their long-running battle over publicly financed health care for the poor.

Speaking on the House floor, Republican lawmakers said the Democratic governor had improperly invoked his emergency authority in creating a program that aims at providing out-patient care for 20,000 mentally ill Virginians.

The McAuliffe administration recently began enrolling individuals into the program, called the Governor's Access Plan. McAuliffe announced the program in September, after the GOP-controlled General Assembly had repeatedly thwarted his efforts to expand Medicaid eligibility to as many as 400,000 low-income Virginians.

Hampton Roads Republican Del. Chris P. Stolle, a physician, said the "rushed" and "incomplete" program was a political power grab by McAuliffe that shouldn't have been implemented without lawmakers' approval. He said the governor's plan would likely lead to rationed care that would do more harm than good for state's mentally ill.

"We are left holding the bag for this poorly conceived program," Stolle said.

Republicans also complained that the McAuliffe administration has not provided estimates on what the program's long-term costs will be.

Lawmakers would have to approve about $77 million to keep the program running in the next fiscal year. Republicans said they are considering alternatives to the governor's plan, but did not provide specifics.

Bill Hazel, secretary of Health and Human Resources, said the governor acted within his authority to address a pressing public health need in a targeted way.

"If you doubt the existence of this emergency, I would encourage you to speak to the individuals, families, and advocates who deal with serious mental illness every day," Hazel said in a letter sent to GOP lawmakers Tuesday.

Medicaid expansion and mental health reform were two of the dominant issues of the 2014 legislative session. McAuliffe tried unsuccessfully on multiple fronts to expand Medicaid, which most Republican legislators opposed. But there was bipartisan support for reforming the state's mental health care system following the suicide of a mentally ill state senator's son.

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