Friday, August 09, 2013

EDITORIAL>>Pryor finds his voice

The question of the summer is, What happened to Sen. Mark Pryor? Often accused of being a fence-sitter, the soft-spoken senator said not once but twice this week that he was very proud of his vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. One of those forums was the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries, the club of the state’s most powerful men, who if they are like their national counterpart opposed the law when it was being drafted in 2009 and 2010.

As everyone knows, the big health insurance reform law that Democrats enacted alone is widely despised or just resented in Arkansas and across the South and Midwest. Didn’t our own Sen. Blanche Lincoln get clobbered in 2010 partly for having not only voted for it but also helped write it? And didn’t Rep. Mike Ross, who wound up voting against it, hang up his spikes last year because the Republicans were going to tar him for merely being associated with the party and the president who enacted Obamacare?

Has Pryor lost his senses? Has his mind been captured by Dale Bumpers, who cast unpopular votes in the Senate for 24 years and then came home and explained them in ways that convinced people he had done exactly the right thing?

Maybe there is a simpler explanation: Mark Pryor decided to be a senator.

His actions were exactly what the Founders had in mind when they created two houses of Congress, which had to agree on the passage of laws. A lower house, in which members had to face the voters every other year, would be sensitive to politics and the contemporary mood of people. In the upper chamber, senators were expected to take the long view, put themselves above momentary passions and do what was best for the country. They were given six-year terms to encourage them to do what was best rather than what was momentarily popular.

It didn’t work for Lincoln, who faced election a few months after the law’s enactment. She came home to find that a massive advertising campaign by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party and other groups had cast the law’s image in stone. They labeled it “Obamacare,” although the president had little hand in drafting it and it was modeled after the Republican health reform bill of the 1990s and a mandatory insurance law in Massachusetts that was the handiwork of Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate for president.

It was, we were told, going to slash people’s Medicare benefits, have the government determine the care people received, end the revered “doctor-patient relationship,” stop treatment of the elderly sick and drive up everyone’s taxes, medical costs and insurance premiums. None of it was actually true, but people were assured that it was all buried in the law if you looked hard enough for it.

Senator Lincoln thought it was beyond her poor ability to persuade voters that all of that was wrong, so she tried to change the subject to her work on behalf of Arkansas farmers, businessmen and children. Ross, who now is running for governor, tells Democrats that he came home to South Arkansas in 2010 to find that voters throughout his district didn’t know what the bill did but were terrified of it. He knew he couldn’t change their minds alone, so he felt he had no choice but to vote against it.

And there was Senator Pryor in the lion’s den at the State Chamber Thursday, answering a question about Obamacare. Like other laws, it is far from perfect and he has sponsored bills to make changes, he told the businessmen, but when it came time to vote on it he concluded firmly that it was the right thing for Arkansas. He is convinced of it now more than ever.

He reeled off the benefits Arkansas people have realized. Parents can keep their children on their health policies until they are 26; seniors are getting additional help with their drug bills every year as Obamacare closes the wretched “donut hole”; people no longer have to pay deductibles or copayments for cancer screenings or other preventive care; tens of thousands of Arkansans get rebate checks every year because insurance companies overcharged them.

Come Jan. 1, when the last of Obamacare is implemented, insurance companies will no longer deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions or curtail their coverage annually or for a lifetime because of acute illnesses, and up to 500,000 Arkansans will have access to affordable health insurance, most of them with substantial government help with the premiums. Arkansas hospitals have cheered the law as a lifesaver. The American Medical Association, the foe of government health insurance since 1935, endorsed it.

Pryor noted that the Arkansas legislature, including most Republicans, had jumped at implementing the central feature of Obamacare—the private insurance exchanges where people can shop for the best plan for their family, starting Oct. 1. He might have noted that economy-minded legislators are crowing about how the state government’s new approach to reimbursing providers is driving down the cost of Medicaid and private plans. No one dares to mention that it is a part of Obamacare.

Nationally, health-care inflation has flattened, unlike anything that has happened in 40 years.

Republicans, including Pryor’s 2014 opponent, are trying to prevent the final implementation in January. The reason is simple. When the election rolls around next year, no one will have to wonder how Obamacare might change their lives. They will know. That is the best thing Mark Pryor has going for him. But he will have to do it on his own. He made an encouraging start this week. —Ernie Dumas