Stopping the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been a centerpiece of Republican campaigning and an invigorating force for the Republican Party in Arkansas. The electorate seemingly validated this agenda by voting in Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. As a result, the fate of an important component of what has become colloquially known as Obamacare has largely rested in the hands of Republican legislators. Yesterday, the private option was passed 28-7.
The component of federal healthcare reform in question is the expansion of Medicaid to an additional 250,000 Arkansans. Arkansas legislators, rejecting the expansion of a federally run program, crafted a unique response, known as the private option. Essentially, those making up to 138% of the poverty level will be provided with private health insurance plans in place of Medicaid. In many respects this mirrors the Massachusetts health care law signed by Mitt Romney in 2006. The Republicans that crafted the Arkansas version of low-income insurance expansion argue they have saved Arkansas from the worst excesses and flaws of a bad federal law. Not all of their colleagues agree.
On the floor Senator Bart Hester (R), of Cave Springs, recalled campaign pledges, “I told people in Northwest Arkansas I would not vote to increase government.”
Senator Jim Hendren (R) noted, “We cannot continue to ask our grandchildren to pay for our lifestyle.” Hendren continued, “We won’t be able to support our obligations.”
Alan Clark (R) went on at length about the pressures and voices he has heard on the issue. Clark noted his struggles to discern who had the “moral authority” to tell him how to vote. Ultimately he concluded that he could only listen to his constituents who had told him, “Washington didn’t wait, we’d prefer you did.” Clark critiqued Republicans advocating the bill, “Even conservatives have gotten jaded about the debt.” Clark compared federal debt to the threat Mount Vesuvius posed to Pompeii.
Although every Democrat voted in favor of the legislation, none spoke in favor of the bill on the floor Wednesday night. This separation from the debate may have provided some cover for the bill’s Republican proponents.
Senator Jeremy Hutchinson (R), who originally did not vote for the enabling legislation, came out in support of the appropriation funding under HB 1219. He shared Hendren’s concerns about the debt saying, “it is immoral” and the “greatest national security threat.” Hutchinson justified his position of expanding health coverage amidst debt by stating that he had, “no confidence federal government would use this money for debt reduction” if Arkansas did not expand insurance coverage.
Hutchinson evoked Barry Goldwater in his defense of healthcare expansion. Hutchison noted his support was a manifestation of an enduring memory of reading a book by Goldwater extolling on problems of fraud, waste, and cost control in government programs. While his cousin Hendren saw HB 1219 as a continuation of debt and waste, Hutchinson argued that the plan to expand government spending for the working poor in Arkansas had the opposite effect, “this is real, legitimate reform.” Hutchinson answered Clark’s call to wait, “we have one window, one opportunity, to reform it.”
The biggest issue of the session is nearly settled but it laid bare a 14-7 split in the new majority that will no doubt have implications in future primary contests and intra-party leadership contests.