The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce for the first time is making independent expenditures in state legislative races. The expenditures are paying for mailers backing candidates who support Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Medicaid expansion plan, Arkansas Works.
Chamber President and CEO Randy Zook said Thursday that the expenditures were being made in “a couple, three Senate races; a couple, three House races.” He said the expenditures were being made to “people who have been targeted by other groups for defeat because of that single vote.”
Zook declined to say which candidates are being supported.
Arkansas Works is Hutchinson’s version of the private option, the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for Arkansans with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. It now provides health insurance for about 200,000 Arkansans. According to Gallup, Arkansas reduced its percentage of uninsured residents from 22.5% in 2013 to 9.1% in the first half of 2015 – at the time, the nation’s largest decrease.
The private option promoted by then Gov. Mike Beebe (D) and was passed by the Arkansas Legislature in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could choose whether to expand Medicaid. It was reauthorized in 2014 by a Republican-controlled Legislature. Both times it passed by close margins.
In 2015, Hutchinson persuaded legislators to authorize the private option until Dec. 31, 2016, when it would end. Meanwhile, a Health Reform Legislative Task Force was created to consider changes. Hutchinson’s plan, Arkansas Works, is similar to the private option but places more financial and personal responsibility on beneficiaries.
Hutchinson will address the task force Feb. 17 with details about his plan. The task force is preparing a legislative package that will be considered in a special session this spring.
The private option is an issue in both House and Senate races in the March 1 primary. In the Senate, there are three contested Republican primary races where the candidates differ on the issue.
In District 7, Rep. Lance Eads faces Sharon Lloyd, both of Springdale. In District 29, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams faces R.D. Hopper, both of Cabot. In District 34, Sen. Jane English faces Rep. Donnie Copeland, both of North Little Rock. Williams and English have voted to authorize the private option in the Senate. While in the House, Eads in 2015 voted to fund the private option through 2016 while creating the legislative task force. Copeland has voted against the private option and introduced legislation to end it, and Hopper and Lloyd have said they oppose it.
Opponents say the private option is an unacceptable expansion of Obamacare that the state will not be able to afford when it starts picking up 5% of the tab in 2017, a number that rises to 10% by 2020.
“It would be a colossal failure of common sense” for Arkansas to end the Medicaid expansion, Zook said.