Friday, February 28, 2014

EDITORIAL >> North Metro and LRAFB

From 1942 until 1946, Newport was home to an air base that trained pilots for the Army Air Forces, Marine Corps and Navy. After the war, the base closed and the town soon began to struggle. The once-thriving community in northeast Arkansas today looks like many towns in the region: Aging buildings, rising crime, a depressed economy and little opportunity.

Sam Walton ran his first discount store there during the early 1950s. He relocated to Bentonville, which is now a boomtown, as is nearby Rogers.

Things may have turned out differently for Newport had the air base remained open. Walmart’s founder likely would have had more incentive to stay, and the company — now the largest private employer in the world — could easily be headquartered there.

While the Newport air base, along with Blytheville Air Force Base are long gone, Little Rock Air Force Base — the economic engine of central Arkansas — continues to thrive 60 years later. But there are potential problems.

This week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced plans to cut the size and cost of the military to pre-World War II levels.

Officials have always indicated that LRAFB will remain open for years to come because of its value as the Air Force’s top C-130 training center. But, as the Pentagon looks for ways to slash its budget after more than 12 years of war, straightening out the finances of the long-troubled North Metro Medical Center has never been more pressing.

The Jacksonville hospital’s emergency room is the only local option for airmen. There’s not an ER on base, and the next closest one is at the St. Vincent Medical Center in Sherwood. North Metro stands to gain at least $1.5 million a year with the private-option health care that would cover thousands of the state’s working poor, who have flooded emergency rooms for treatment that is never paid for, sending hospitals’ finances into tailspin.

House Speaker Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot) knows what’s at stake here, as do state Senators Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), Jane English (R-North Little Rock) and Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy). Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) has also supported the private option. They are all tried-and-true conservatives, many of whom won their seats by pledging to fight the Affordable Care Act.

They now see an opportunity to stop hospitals from being driven to ruin from providing free care for the poor, which hospitals are legally obligated to do. Hospitals are not reimbursed for the services they provide to uninsured patients. Under the private option, that will change.

Carter has been working hard to get a 75 percent supermajority needed to pass the private option in the House. He’s still a couple of votes short.

If Carter succeeds — as we believe he eventually will — he will have demonstrated that his political skills are as seasoned as any gubernatorial candidate campaigning today. (Asa Hutchinson, a fellow Republican, has kept silent on the private option. Democrat Mike Ross is for it.) Someday, Carter, who’s term-limited, will also make an excellent First District congressional candidate. For now, he’s decided not to further his political career, opting instead to keep his top job with Centennial Bank, where he’s risen through the ranks.

The House speaker is having a tough time explaining the intricacies of public policy to many of his less-informed colleagues, but negotiations continue. A vote is now set for Monday, when a couple of Republicans who’ve been opposed to the private option could switch.

The only Republican holdout in our area is North Metro Medical Center’s Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin). He is head of the hospital’s physical-therapy services.

Farrer won’t support the private option because he believes, incorrectly, that it would cost the state money and contribute to the national debt, which is actually declining because of falling military expenses, an improving economy and new health-care policies.

Under the private option, Arkansas will gain $712 million annually while covering more of the state’s poor people and helping struggling hospitals stay open. Farrer though would have us believe that his stand against the private option makes him more conservative than the likes of Williams, Dismang, Carter, House and English. Not a chance.

Farrer’s Republican colleagues should drive him up to Newport and have him look at the abandoned buildings at the former air base and convince him of all the good the private option will do for Arkansas.

What will budget cutters at the Pentagon think if the only nearby emergency room for airmen at LRAFB were to close?

Let’s not take that chance.