It was not always clear that West Virginia would expand Medicaid. Tomblin was noncommittal for months as he waited for the results of a study on how expansion would affect the state's finances.
In May, when he announced the decision to expand, he was the last Democratic governor to do so, and West Virginia was one of the last states to announce a decision.
Rockefeller, who had urged expansion for months, was with Tomblin at Saint Francis Hospital in Charleston for the announcement.
He said he felt "absolute, sheer happiness" at the decision, which he called "a commitment to the American public which makes so much financial sense."
The federal government pays for the entire cost of expanding Medicaid for the first three years, and 90 percent of the costs after that.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that expanding Medicaid will bring West Virginia an extra $8.7 billion in federal money over the next 10 years. West Virginia's share of the cost over that time is estimated at $619 million, yielding a return on investment, if you will, of more than 1,300 percent.
In neighboring Virginia, which is not expanding Medicaid, 276,000 of the state's poorest residents will not only not get coverage through Medicaid, but they also will be ineligible for subsidies to buy private insurance because they make too little to qualify.
In a state where Obama lost all 55 counties in 2012, taking any position in support of his divisive health-care law is politically risky, but it's not the first time Rockefeller has taken a politically controversial position on health care.
In 1988, Rockefeller was a first-term senator when he was appointed to the Pepper Commission, to study and recommend solutions for health and long-term care.
Soon after, in 1989, the commission was thrown into turmoil, when its chairman and namesake, Rep. Claude Pepper, died. Several months later, amid popular uproar, Congress repealed a Medicare reform law it had passed overwhelmingly only a year before.
Members of the Pepper Commission were not exactly chomping at the bit to take a leadership role on health reform during such a contentious time.
"Given the repeal of the bill that was changing Medicare, most other members of the commission were, shall we say, not enthusiastic about delving in," said Judith Feder, staff director for the Pepper Commission. "It was a controversial topic and viewed as politically risky, whatever position you chose to take. That did not inhibit Senator Rockefeller, and he stepped up to the chair.
"He always put West Virginia at the top of his list and assessed policy proposals in terms of how they would affect West Virginians," Feder, who became dean of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute said. "He felt strongly that affordable health care was critical to the citizens -- the children and the adults, and the older and the disabled -- of West Virginia and the nation."
In 1997, Rockefeller was the primary author of CHIP, which provides health care to children whose families make between 100 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
Combined with Medicaid, which covers the very poorest children, CHIP provided health coverage to more than 190,000 West Virginia kids in November, roughly half of all the children in the state.
In the poorest areas of West Virginia, the programs are even more crucial.
West Virginia CHIP estimates that there are only 133 uninsured kids in McDowell County, largely because 77 percent of children there get insurance through Medicaid or CHIP.
Clay County has just 66 uninsured kids, according to CHIP estimates, because 70 percent are covered through the two programs.
"We're just very grateful that we've had him as an ongoing champion," said Sharon Carte, director of CHIP in West Virginia. "The same year that they were passing the ACA, they were ready to cut CHIP altogether, and it was Senator Rockefeller who really insisted that there had to be appropriated funds until 2015."'Passionate and committed'
While everything in Washington these days is partisan, Rockefeller has fought for West Virginians and, at the same time, remained collegial with his Republican colleagues.
"The chairman's very committed to looking out for consumers," said Sen. John Thune, the ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee.
Thune, a sometimes-rumored presidential candidate from South Dakota, readily admits that he and Rockefeller have different views on policy and that the committee's agenda reflects Rockefeller's priorities. But he said they've bonded over little things -- both are from rural states, both like talking about basketball and both are more than 6 feet 4 inches tall.
"These relationships up here, because of differences on the issues, sometimes can be a little bit contentious, but I think we really work to keep it very amicable," Thune said. "We all have a job to do and I think he tries to do his the way that he sees best and in the best interest of the people that he represents."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, was more effusive in her praise.
Snowe, who retired earlier this year after 18 years in the Senate and 16 years in the House, recalled a collaboration with Rockefeller as one of her greatest accomplishments.
In 1995, Congress set about updating the Communications Act -- which created the FCC and regulated phone, radio and other communications -- for the first time in 61 years. Snowe and Rockefeller proposed amendments that would expand Internet access to rural areas of the country.
At the time, about 14 percent of American schools had Internet access.
"Jay called me up, one early morning," Snowe remembered, "and he said, 'You know, why don't we enjoin our efforts, merge our two amendments?' Because they were ultimately for the same purpose."
Snowe agreed, but her party controlled the Senate at the time and she was under pressure from Republican leadership to not offer any amendments.
"Jay kept coming over saying, 'Are you alright? Are you alright?' and I said, 'Yeah don't worry about it,'" Snowe said. "Jay was so passionate and committed. He monitored this effort -- every detail, every facet. He was so passionate in his belief about it; he was somebody you would want to have on your side. He was totally remarkable."
The amendment, which became the E-rate program, uses fees on telecommunications companies to help pay for Internet access in rural schools and libraries.
After the bill passed, parts of it were still in flux as the FCC ruled on the details. Two days before Election Day in 1996, Rockefeller called Snowe, concerned about an upcoming FCC decision.
"I said, 'Jay don't you have bigger things to worry about, like your re-election,'" Snowe recalled. "And he says, 'Yeah, but this is very important to me.'
"I never forgot that, I was so impressed."
Today, more than 95 percent of American schools are connected to the Internet.
"The work he did with Senator Snowe is going to be the stuff for the history books," said Rosenworcel, who, as an FCC commissioner, oversees the program. "It's flat-out extraordinary the foresight the two of them had, realizing that it would be essential for the next generation's education.
"He had the foresight to see that back in 1996, when you and I probably called the Internet the 'information superhighway.'"
Snowe, a self-styled moderate, bemoaned the lack of civility and bipartisanship in Washington. She said she could work with Rockefeller even though he wasn't a centrist because he was a legislator in the truest sense of the word -- more interested in crafting policy than in the politics of it.
"He'll be missed and [it's] a real loss to the Senate. I can't overstate it, actually," Snowe said. "He was passionate about the issues and caring about getting things done for the people he represented in West Virginia."
Reach David Gutman at david.gut...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.