Wednesday, April 17, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Expansion gets closer

After pressure from Gov. Mike Beebe and Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot), a supermajority of the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved, by a vote of 77-23, a Medicaid expansion program that will insure some 250,000 working poor in Arkansas.

The first vote failed on Monday, but continued pressure from the governor and Carter put the bill over the top. Their political skills have pushed the innovative private option forward, and today it will be up to the Senate, where it is still short of a couple of votes, to approve funding the bill and send it to Beebe for his signature.

The federal government will fund the extension in its entirety for the next three years and 90 percent after that — or about $650 million, which a poor state like Arkansas (or any state) could not afford to give up. It would have been foolish to turn the money away. The Arkansas Hospital Association and several business groups pushed for enactment of the innovative program, which offers recipients a private option and gets them off Medicaid. All Democrats in the House supported the private option.

Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) was one of the few holdouts against expansion in the House. Farrer is a physical therapist at North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville but insists the struggling hospital won’t benefit much from the expansion, even though it writes off millions of dollars a year in services to uninsured patients.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), who will be the next Senate majority leader, supports the program. He listened to his constituents, including employees at White County Regional Medical Center, which will soon treat thousands of working poor who qualify for the private option if the Senate, too, approves funding.

Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas’ surgeon general, also deserves credit for passage of the new law. He met frequently with legislators and community leader to convince them that Arkansas could not refuse millions of dollars in federal funds to help improve the health of our working poor. He estimated the new insurance plan will help improve health care, save the lives of thousands of Arkansans a year and offer a lifeline to many small hospitals.

Congratulations to Gov. Beebe, Speaker Carter, Dr. Thompson and all the fine legislators who had the courage to do the right thing for our working poor. The Senate is the last remaining hurdle, which can be overcome if Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) and others who have opposed the private option switch their votes and support the overburdened hospitals and small businesses in their districts. It could be the most important vote of their political careers.