Wednesday, February 19, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Legislature to vote again

The House of Representatives on Tuesday narrowly missed getting a three-fourths supermajority to fund private-option insurance, but House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) said he will try again today. He predicts passage sooner or later in the House. Rejecting the option would mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds and the loss of thousands of health-related jobs, especially in central Arkansas.

The Senate will likely pass the bill after Rep. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) had a change of heart and announced she would support the private option after all.

English has not let us down: We’ve urged her for weeks to throw her support behind the private option so that the newly insured can keep their coverage and hospitals in and around her district can remain open.

Although she opposed the private option last year, she said Tuesday she will vote to fund the private option, which will give the program the three-fourths majority needed to pass in the Senate.

English was promised $15-$24 million for additional workforce training by the state and perhaps a new veterans home in North Little Rock, which is supported by the Arkansas Veterans Commission.

English was executive director of the Arkansas Workforce Investment Board under Gov. Mike Huckabee. Job creation has always been on top of her agenda. Expanding insurance for 150,000 Arkansans will not only provide better health care for them but will also create thousands of jobs in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

English’s constituents have access to more hospitals than perhaps any area in the state — as many as half a dozen — but most of them are struggling. UAMS has said it would have to cut $9 million from its budget if the private option weren’t funded.

Until now, she voted with a band of know-nothings — mostly from north Arkansas — plus the hapless Joe Farrer (R-Austin), a physical therapist at North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville who represents House Dist. 44. Everyone else from central Arkansas has supported the private option, which pays for private health insurance entirely with federal funds. It makes no sense to turn that money down.

North Metro, which is struggling to pay its utility bills, has written off millions of dollars in bad debt from uninsured patients. With the private option, the hospital will at least have a fighting chance as everyone will have some kind of coverage. Why Farrer won’t throw his own employer a lifeline is something the hospital might discuss with him today, before the House votes on the bill once again. His constituents should also contact him and urge him to switch sides and follow English’s example.

Carter has warned colleagues that failure to approve the funding could cost the state $80 million to $100 million and create a shortfall that would have to be made up at the detriment of other needs, including new prison beds to ease overcrowding.

“We’re leading the country on health care,” said Carter, who showed real leadership throughout the fight to pass and fund private option. He also said, if the state loses private-option funding, there would be an $89 million decrease in revenue immediately. He said small businesses could face fines up to $38 million and hospitals and clinics may be forced to close.

Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood) has been one of the strongest supporters of the private option. Nickels said, “We have 100,000 covered. I can’t see the state legislature kicking these folks to the street.”

If the private option is not funded, it wrecks the budget, Nickels said. The General Assembly approved tax cuts after passing the private option because of the federal money that would be generated for private insurance.

Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) said all along he believed a compromise was possible.

Williams, who voted for the private option in 2013, contacted wavering colleagues for months. “I asked what will we do with the people who signed up if this thing collapses,” he said. “A substantial number that have signed up have come out of state programs.”

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), the future Senate president, has said getting the facts to the legislators is the key. “It goes back to making sure members have the information to make an educated vote,” Dismang said.

Responsible legislative leaders have explained the importance of funding the private option. The rest of the legislature — especially Rep. Farrer — should go along and honor the wishes of the people of Arkansas and support health care for everyone.

After all, Farrer’s job could depend on passing the private option. This could be the last opportunity for North Metro to remain open.