CHARLESTON, SC — It depends on what the meaning of the word “expansion” is.
That might be the most appropriate way to describe the confusion and conflicting reporting stemming from a news conference given last Friday by Terry McAuliffe, the longtime consigliere to Bill Clinton and current Democratic governor of Virginia. After spending a good chunk of Monday trying to figure out just what Slick Terry meant, I don’t envy reporters in that state. But it’s possible to identify some lessons here, and some thoughts on where the coverage should go next.
Here’s what’s clear: After a months-long partisan struggle with Republicans in the state legislature over whether to accept federal funds from the Affordable Care Act to expand eligibility for the state’s Medicaid program, McAuliffe on Friday averted a government shutdown by signing a GOP-passed budget that rejects the money. But in doing so, he vetoed several Medicaid-related provisions inserted by Republicans, and promised to do, well, something about improving access to healthcare coverage.
Coverage from The Associated Press was similar (“Gov. Terry McAuliffe vowed Friday to bypass the General Assembly and expand Medicaid eligibility for about 400,000 low-income residents on his own,” went the lede) and the distribution of that story Friday afternoon spurred plenty of Twitter chatter and breaking news alerts.
But before long, there was another media narrative circulating, saying that those first stories were all wrong. By 3:30 Friday afternoon, Vox.com had a piece up under the headline, “Virginia Republicans appear to have successfully blocked Medicaid expansion.”
Huffington Post’s reported story, based on an interview with McAuliffe spokeswoman Rachel Thomas, was a little less contrary, but only a little. Here’s how their healthcare reporter Jeffrey Young tweeted the piece:
Q: Did Terry McAuliffe announce he's expanding Medicaid today? A: NO HE DIDN'T, despite what you've read elsewhere. http://t.co/VzHhw7bb7D— Jeffrey Young (@JeffYoung) June 20, 2014
And it’s true—in McAuliffe’s nearly 20-minute speech, not once did he explicitly say he was going to “expand Medicaid.” He did cite his success running on “a platform of expanding Medicaid services to 400,000 Virginians,” in the course of bashing Republicans at length for blocking expansion, and then he said this:
With respect to healthcare, let me be clear: I am moving forward. There are several options that are available to me. I have directed [health] Secretary [William] Hazel to work with our federal partners in Washington, the insurance industry, the healthcare providers, our university medical centers, nonprofit organizations, our local health department, and the hospital industry, to extend the promise of healthcare to all our people. Secretary Hazel will have a plan on my desk no later than September first of this year detailing how we move forward with healthcare in the face of demagoguery, the lies, the fear and cowardice that have gripped this debate for far too long.
Elsewhere in his comments, he said, “I am moving forward to get healthcare to our Virginia citizens,” and “There are several options out there, public, private, working in different ways with different opportunities that we can put together, working with the private sector” and, “We are going to provide healthcare for our citizens and we are going to pick the best option available to us, plain and simple.”
That’s definitely news—but there’s not really enough there to support those “expand Medicaid” headlines (which, actually, had started to appear well before last Friday).
But then, in a Q-and-A portion of the news conference, The Virginian-Pilot’s Bill Sizemore, who wrote that front-page piece, asked McAuliffe if he had any concerns “about the legality of doing that, the Medicaid expansion?” McAuliffe accepted the premise of the question, simply replying that he’d been working with the attorney general’s office to make sure anything he does will be in concert with the law.
And Virginia reporters told me that the governor’s office hasn’t objected to their published characterization of his comments as a vow to expand Medicaid—which is how The Washington Post, The News Virginian, and WDBJ in Roanoke also framed it. (Other in-state outlets, like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Loudoun Times-Mirror, and Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau were more careful, largely sticking to the governor’s terms.)
So, what the heck is going on here? And does any of this matter, anyway?