Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday put the weight of his office behind Congress’ latest attempt to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system, saying the Graham-Cassidy bill now circulating in the U.S. Senate was the “best and last opportunity” to replace the Affordable Care Act passed by former President Barack Obama.
In an hour-long “pen-and-pad” press conference in his personal office at the State Capitol, Hutchinson said he has recently worked quietly behind the scenes with the governors of Arizona, Wisconsin and Mississippi to take a final shot at repealing the 2010 healthcare law often tagged by Republicans as “Obamacare.”
“I see this bill as the best and last opportunity to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is the wrong direction for America,” Hutchinson told reporters. “And I also see this as covering the major points I’ve advocated for during the last six months – and that is flexibility to the states, and this is very, very important, it doesn’t represent a significant cost shifts to the states …”
Hutchinson said he came to his decision to support the proposed healthcare repeal bill by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana while working behind the scenes with the Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Although he offered lukewarm support for the Republican-backed legislation that failed two months ago under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Hutchinson explained that he is putting his support behind the Graham-Cassidy bill because it doesn’t represent a cost-shift to states, allows for flexibility with block grant funds, and allows states like Arkansas to continue the progress already demonstrated under Obamacare.
He reiterated that Congress is faced with a Sept. 30 deadline to repeal ACA after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that Republican lawmakers would have to meet the deadline to approve a new budget resolution, known as reconciliation. And now, even with some unpredictability on key support for the proposed legislation, Hutchinson said he believes the Graham-Cassidy bill is generating enough backing to get the necessary 50 votes for approval.
“If it doesn’t pass, I think the Affordable Care Act is here in perpetuity. It is built into the fabric of our healthcare system, and I don’t see it changing. So this is our last chance,” he warned.
Nearly two months ago, Hutchinson was part of a small group of governors invited to the White House to visit with Trump Administration officials about how to move forward on health care legislation. That meeting in late July, which also included Govs. Walker and Bryant, came after GOP leaders in the Senate failed to approve legislation geared to undo Obamacare after just 49 of 52 Senate Republicans voted for the measure.
In a July 18 interview with CNN host Wolf Blitzer after the Senate’s efforts to undo ACA came to a standstill, Hutchinson said Republican lawmakers should “let the dust settle” and then sit down with Democrats to come up with new reform plan to provide healthcare to the American people. On Tuesday, however, the Arkansas governor said he doesn’t believe the Graham-Cassidy measure will engender any support from Democrats.
“The Democrats have said we will not do anything to repeal Obamacare,” Hutchinson said. “I think they should support this bill because it is good for their states.”
Hutchinson also downplayed some concerns from Democrats that the Graham-Cassidy bill would increase healthcare costs, gut coverage for pre-existing conditions, and slash funding for Medicaid that helps support rural communities and opioid treatment.
On Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Republicans are now pushing for a quick vote on the latest health care repeal bill even though the Congressional Budget Office said Monday they will not have a full analysis of the bill’s costs for weeks. The Democratic committee also cited a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation that said the new GOP healthcare proposal would allow insurers to charge older Americans up to five times more than they are currently paying for health insurance.
“I am trying to diminish all the worrisome scenarios by saying that you’ve got the same chunk of money with just flexibility to the states on how that money is administered and to meet the needs of the states,” Hutchinson said, adding “it allows us to continue Arkansas Works …, a program that I believe is successful.”
If Congress approves the bill to repeal Obamacare, Hutchinson said reforms to improve Arkansas Works would continue under the new plan. He said his administration would continue to work with healthcare stakeholders to design a better plan with the flexibility that comes with the newest GOP proposal.
“There’s already some stories out there that this is somehow going to cost Arkansas billions of dollars. That’s just not so,” Hutchinson told reporters. “It repeals as much of the Affordable Care Act as it can under the reconciliation rules …, but it permits states to make decisions beyond that. We can reject more of it, we can retain parts of it and we can come with our own formulations as to what our healthcare system should be like in Arkansas or any individual state.”
If the Graham-Cassidy bill fails, Hutchinson said Arkansas Works remains “in a good position.” Under Hutchinson, Arkansas Works uses federal Medicaid dollars under ACA to purchase private health insurance for individuals with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL). It was created in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states had the option of expanding their Medicaid populations, and changed to Arkansas Works under Hutchinson from the “Private Option” system under former Gov. Mike Beebe.
In the past, Arkansas has received a waiver from the Obama Administration allowing it to purchase that insurance through the private markets. It has been funded almost entirely by the federal government until this year when the state began picking up 5% of the tab. That number grows over time to 10% by 2020.
In early March, Hutchinson said he would seek a waiver from the Trump Administration to cap the financial eligibility of the Arkansas Works program at 100% of the FPL. If this change is made, individuals in this income bracket would be eligible for federal subsidies through the federal marketplace and could pick their same plan or choose a different one that better suits their needs.
“We are expecting to hear a response on those waivers … any day now,” he said.
Concerning Senate support for the Graham-Cassidy legislation, Hutchinson said he had a “good conversation” today with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., but was still unsure if the proposed legislation has enough support yet for passage.
Besides his discussion of healthcare legislation, Hutchinson also told reporters he is headed to Mexico on Wednesday (Sept. 20) to help Arkansas State University officials dedicate a new campus that opened on Monday. Arkansas State University’s campus in Queretaro, Mexico, is a private foundation led by businessman Ricardo González, whose partnership has invested $100 million to build 800,000 square feet of academic and residential buildings and recreational facilities in the first phase of the 200-acre campus and a 2,000-acre community development plan.
State funds are not being used to build or operate the Mexico campus, and all of ASU’s startup personnel and travel costs are reimbursed with funds from private gifts, according to the university. After the dedication, Hutchinson and Arkansas Economic Development Director (AEDC) Mike Preston and other economic development and administration staff will travel to Mexico City to meet with government and private sector officials to discuss job opportunities in the manufacturing and aerospace industry.