Opinion

We invited the NC governor and Senate leader to debate Medicaid expansion. One side said no.

Last month, in the early days of North Carolina’s budget stalemate, Senate leader Phil Berger issued an invitation to Gov. Roy Cooper. Let’s have a debate, Berger said, about the issue that was holding everything up — Medicaid expansion. He’s repeated the call since.

The governor, along with most everyone else, ignored the invitation — in part because the governor’s office and others believed that behind-the-scenes talks would be a more fruitful path. Those talks, however, have gone nowhere. The budget is still in legislative limbo. Cooper and Berger are firing off news releases that blame each other for the lack of movement. We’re stuck. Let’s try to change that.

Today, we’re inviting the governor and Senate leader to have a one-hour debate next month on Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. We’ll supply the venue in Raleigh, and we’ll provide a livestream for anyone who wants to watch from home. We recommend a traditional debate format — opening statements, two minute responses to questions from a moderator, then closing statements. We’ll provide one moderator, but because our editorial board has advocated for Medicaid expansion, we welcome a recommendation from Mr. Berger for a second person to ask questions.

This is not a gimmick. It’s an opportunity to discuss an issue that is central to the future of North Carolina’s health and economy. The Affordable Care Act allows states to expand Medicaid eligibility to uninsured adults and children whose incomes are at or below 138% of the federal poverty level. Thirty six states, plus the District of Columbia, have done so.

The governor and other advocates believe expanding Medicaid here would provide health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, increase jobs and help struggling rural hospitals. Cooper has intensified his public push for expansion by meeting affected parties in Raleigh and across the state. “I believe straight up Medicaid expansion is the best option,” he said earlier this month, “but I’m willing to discuss concerns of leaders in both chambers to ensure that more North Carolinians can get access to affordable health care.”

Berger, in an op-ed last month, said he thinks expanding Medicaid is an economic risk that would result increased health care costs and increased wait times at medical offices. He and House speaker Tim Moore have declined to give their blessing to compromise legislation that Democrats believe might get enough Republican votes to pass.

Yes, it’s possible that a debate won’t change the immediate political dynamic. It might even cause each side to dig in further on Medicaid rather than risk the impression of a debate loss. But there’s also the possibility that the debate could reveal to each side — and North Carolinians — at least a little common ground that could provide a foundation for compromise.

We’ve given the governor’s and Senate leader’s offices a heads up on our debate invitation. Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told the editorial board Monday that the senator is agreeable to debating the governor. Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told us the governor is not going to debate, and that Republicans should respond to Cooper’s compromise budget proposal. We agree. But we also think the the governor has a good case to make and defend on Medicaid expansion. We hope he decides it’s one that worth debating.

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