Tuesday, March 22, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Stopping Obamacare

It is hard for political animals, Democrat or Republican, to put the public interest above politics, and we are all accustomed to a considerable degree of partisan posturing when legislative bodies assemble. Arkansas Republicans should be forgiven for wanting to embarrass President Obama whenever they can and to deal him and his celebrated national health-insurance law a setback but they stretch it to hypocrisy.

Perceiving the big insurance law still to be on the unpopular side, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to try to prevent its many reforms from taking effect in Arkansas. The bills happen to be constitutionally impermissible. John C. Calhoun lost that jurisdictional battle a century and a half ago.

But the Republicans are liable to prevail on one issue at the legislature and they are just plain loco. They flout their own principles and the clear interest of everyone they represent, all in the hope that it will appear to be an embarrassment for the president.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” as the Republicans like to call it, establishes a market of private health-care plans, where small-group employers and individuals will be able to shop for an insurance plan that is suitable for them and affordable. It will be organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, although all the plans will be offered by insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna and the like. But the health law allows states to set up the markets themselves if they choose. If a state chooses not to create its own insurance exchange, individuals and employers in that state will shop in the national exchange. And the federal government instead of the state would regulate the insurance and serve as the consumer protector.

Gov. Beebe wants Arkansas to set up its own exchange. The insurance plans would be regulated by the state Insurance Department, the same as it regulates all the other health, casualty and life insurance sold in the state. He makes good sense. Since medical care tends to be cheaper in Arkansas than in many states, the insurance companies ought to offer less expensive policies for an Arkansas market than those offered in the national exchange.

That sounds like it should be a perfect Republican plan: Get the federal government out of it as far as you can and let us run the program in a way that suits Arkansas’ health-care needs. Beebe was not a fan of the health-insurance reform law because he thought that in nine or ten years it would impose large new Medicaid burdens, but he thinks Arkansas can run the programs better than Washington.

But his bill to authorize the state Insurance Department to put together the insurance exchange (it will all take effect Jan. 1, 2014) ran into solid Republican opposition in the House Insurance and Commerce Committee. Sen. Gilbert Baker, the Republican leader, explained the Republican stance. If the legislature defeats the bill, it should prevent the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from being implemented in Arkansas. He also expected the law to be declared unconstitutional and, anyway, nothing needs to be done until that is settled.

He spoke from either ignorance or malice. Defeating the governor’s bill (HB 1238) will have absolutely no effect on whether the uninsured in Arkansas will be able to buy insurance in 2014, as the law requires. Its defeat will have one effect and one only: If the federal law is upheld and takes effect in 2014, some 200,000 Arkansans or their employers will have to buy health insurance through the national exchange, not one designed by and for Arkansans, and if they are victimized by the insurance companies or agents, they will have to take it to Washington for relief instead of to the consumer advocates at the state Insurance Department.

The Republicans are saying, in effect: Let’s let Washington run this program for us because they’re better at it. They could be right, but they should be straight up about it and not bluster about stopping Obamacare. The president, we would guess, would cheer the Republican position. —E.D.