In recognition that he has become politically vulnerable in his race against Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) over the state's lack of Medicaid expansion, Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis is now singing a distinctly different tune on the issue and saying expansion under the Affordable Care Act could be feasible.
In his primary earlier this year, Tillis ran an ad saying that he "stopped Obamacare's Medicaid expansion cold." North Carolina's House of Representatives, which Tillis leads, passed a bill in February rejecting an expansion, which would have provided health care to an estimated 500,000 low-income North Carolinians. The state is one of 23 that have, so far, refused to expand the program despite funding from the federal health care reform law.
"It's not happening in North Carolina, and it's because of Thom Tillis," the ad said.
Early voting in the state began Thursday, and now that he's facing a small but consistent deficit in the polls against Hagan, Tillis explained his new thinking to Time Warner Cable News:
Asked if he thought it would be likely that the state legislature would expand Medicaid coverage after refusing to do so previously, Tillis said it might make sense once the state has better control of the financing of the program, which is notorious for its cost overruns.
He said he didn't have an ideological objection to expanding the coverage. But he said when the state auditor told the previous governor that money was being wasted on it, the appropriate response would not have been to make it bigger and more costly.
"I would encourage the state legislature and governor to consider it if they're completely convinced they now have the situation under control," Tillis said.
Tillis' campaign has justified his new rhetoric by saying the state's Department of Health and Human Services is now in a suitable financial state to expand the program. The Republican had previously explained in the state legislature that he was opposed to expansion because it would cost the state too much.
"Based on the previous state of the system, expansion would have eventually caused massive budget deficits, resulting in severe cuts to other important programs," Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said in a statement. "[Now] the state's Medicaid system is in a much better position."
State DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, who recently announced a $63 million budget surplus for the state's Medicaid program, said in September that she would "soon" recommend a Medicaid expansion to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R).
Hagan's campaign said in a statement Friday that Tillis is attempting to run from his legislative record with his latest comments.
"Speaker Tillis previously bragged about how he stopped Medicaid expansion cold -- a heartless move that denied coverage for 500,000 North Carolinians," said Sadie Weiner, Hagan's campaign communications director. "Now he's trying to have it both ways because he knows North Carolinians aren't buying his devastating record, but the truth is he can't hide from the damage he's caused in North Carolina."
The Democratic senator has highlighted Tillis' opposition to Medicaid expansion in debates, as she picked up on his aversion to specifically discussing his position on the issue.