Monday, February 24, 2014

EDITORIAL >> What North Metro’s Farrer doesn’t know

The current “fiscal session” of the legislature reminds us of what a kindred editor of ours at the Prescott Dispatch down in Nevada County wrote in 1877, now 137 years ago: “We are willing to have the yellow fever, Digger Indians, drouths, grasshoppers, presidential excursions, or the seven plagues of Egypt, but an extra session of the present legislature, God forbid!”

We can’t imagine what frightened the editor about tribes that dieted on roots or about a visit from President Rutherford B. Hayes, but we are quite sure he would be as appalled at the Arkansas House of Representatives, now assembled in its third useless fiscal session. Make that a small cabal of the House of Representatives, not the great majority.

Everyone has known for weeks that three-fourths of the House wanted to continue accepting tens of millions of dollars a year to pay for insurance and medical care for the state’s poorest working folks. The requisite three-fourths of the Senate—27 senators—voted for another year’s appropriation of state and federal funds for health care for the frail elderly, disabled, blind, children and the rest of our neighbors who make too little money to pay for insurance. But, on the other end of the Capitol, about 30 representatives, are either dead set against ever voting for something that is remotely associated with the black president of the United States or else want to demonstrate that they effectively voted against him a number of times before surrendering and voting for him. Next week, a few of the latter will vote “yes” and we can try to forget the silliness of this week.

Of course, voting for or against funding the so-called private option has nothing to do with Barack Obama. The only issue is whether more than 100,000 Arkansans who will have signed up for Medicaid insurance by the end of next month and another 100,000 or so who may sign up over the next three years will go back to having no coverage when they get sick or are injured. But after opponents of the Affordable Care Act labeled it “Obamacare,” the issue somehow became voting for the despised Obama.

One day next week, 75 or more representatives will stay in their seats and vote for the bill rather than push the “present” button on their desks, which is reserved for cowards, so the bill will pass and Gov. Beebe will sign it into law. Nearly everyone in government, Republicans and Democrats alike, will breathe a sigh of relief. That $89 million hole in the state budget that would follow defeat of the private option will be plugged, community hospitals like those in our region will be saved, the state will get a giant infusion of money that business groups say will create new jobs and income, 4 percent of the new federal funds will gush back into the state treasury as new income taxes and, last but foremost, more than 100,000 decent people will get medical care when they need it—this year.
But the farce that takes us to that point is embarrassing. It is already embarrassing that, alone among the 51 state and national legislative bodies and among U.S. territories and protectorates, Arkansas allows a small minority of legislators to dictate state fiscal policy. We are of the opinion that our confusing state Constitution actually permits a majority to pass the appropriation, but since the Supreme Court might read the Constitution otherwise it is safe to enforce the three-fourths rule, however many roll calls it takes. No one wants to hold still another expensive emergency session in mid-summer if the court were to hold that a majority was not good enough to pass a law that most lawmakers think is essential for the state’s fiscal and physical health.

Our Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) is not one of those who sit on the fence, for which he deserves some credit. Even though all other legislators in our area support the private option, Farrer is flatly and forever against implementing the part of the Affordable Care Act that serves the state’s poorest men and women. But his reasons are spurious.

“I’m a ‘no’ vote. We just can’t afford it,” he said. Ten years from now, he explained, after the state starts bearing a tenth of the cost of insuring the 200,000 or so people who are eligible, Arkansas will be paying between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion out of the state treasury.

Actually, the state share might be a tenth of that, while the additional federal money flowing into the Arkansas economy as a result of the Medicaid expansion will exceed that $1.5 billion. Rather than costing the state treasury $1.5 billion in 2015, as Farrer seems to suggest, the state treasury will have gained a net $712 million. You may be opposed to providing insurance to poor people as a philosophical matter, but you cannot argue that you are voting “no” to protect the state treasury. If Farrer succeeds and the appropriation bill is defeated for good, North Metro Medical Center, where he is an administrator, will be in a heap of trouble when a sizable part of its patient load can no longer pay and reimbursement rates go down.

If the Medicaid expansion is such a shocking and horrible thing, what did Farrer and the other foes think when a truly big expansion occurred in 1997? That was when Gov. Mike Huckabee, a conservative Republican, pushed the legislature into expanding Medicaid to cover many of the state’s youngsters—this year some 350,000 of them. It is a far larger and costlier program, both for the state and the federal government, than the “Obamacare private option” that he now opposes. Arkansas bears about 30 percent of those costs, not the 10 percent it will bear for the Obamacare recipients starting in 2020. Huckabee still brags that the huge expansion of Medicaid was his greatest achievement.

If those who say they want to save the state and federal government from larger deficits and debt are consistent, they should stop the appropriation for the Huckabee expansion as well, along with the money for public and private nursing home care for the elderly, the blind and disabled and the rest.
Wait! Since that money is embedded in the same bill, they are voting to do just that.