Monday, February 24, 2014

TOP STORY >> Vote set Tuesday to save program

Leader senior staff writer

A Republican minority in the Arkansas House seems every bit as intent upon shutting down the Department of Human Services and private option as their Washington counterparts were when they threatened to derail the federal government over the Affordable Care Act last year.

At least that’s how state Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood) sees it. “If private option isn’t approved, it will lead to a partial government shutdown,” Nickels said.

Friday, for the fourth consecutive day, House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) failed to muster the 75-vote supermajority needed to fund private-option health insurance for as many as 250,000 working-poor Arkansans.

Last April, both houses of the General Assembly approved private option after getting Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to approve its unique alterations.

Carter and Gov. Mike Beebe say failure to fund the private option will cost the state about $90 million next year and that no budget can be approved until the fate of the private option is settled. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

That $90 million would have to be cut from the budget if the private option fails, they say.

With state Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) changing his vote from “present” to a “yes” vote, the House could still manage only 71 votes.

The House had eight “paired votes” in which a yea and nay vote agree that one of the two parties will be in attendance to make sure both votes are counted. When John Payton, (R-Wilburn) — a nay vote — did not attend the session, thus depriving private option a yea vote it needed, the speaker directed the State Police to find Payton and bring him back.

Yea and nay votes do not cancel each other out. The measure needs 75 yes votes, and it doesn’t matter if the other votes are nay, present or don’t show up. Some believe this was Payton’s blatant effort to make sure the measure didn’t pass.

Yesterday, a House member wanting to vote yea and could not attend had to ask several nay voters to pair before finding an agreeable partner, Nickels said.

In the past, this has been considered a routine courtesy, but Nickels said this was another effort to make sure the private option failed.

“He never should have agreed to the pair,” Nickels said of Payton. He said that another nay vote was found to pair with the yea vote instead.

If DHS funding fails, Nickels fears that payments to nursing homes for patients will stop. He says that two-thirds of all births in the state are paid for by Medicaid. If that’s not funded, he asked, what’s going to happen?

State Rep. Mark Perry (D- Jacksonville) said, “It was an interesting day at the Capitol. We thought we had it worked out, but we didn’t. If the private option isn’t funded, we have to make cuts.”

Of Payton, Perry said,  “I guess he got tired of working for the people and decided to leave. We’ll come back Tuesday and maybe some people over the weekend will understand what private option is. (Locally) we have Joe Farrer (R-Austin), who still doesn’t understand.”
Farrer said Friday afternoon, after the private option failed for the fourth time, “I’m a ‘no’ vote. We just can’t afford it.”

“Keeping the private option as it is now would cost the state $1.2 to $1.5 billion in 10 years,” he said. “Heath care is broken.But the private option won’t improve care or make that care more affordable. Just this week, Blue Cross cut reimbursement to health care providers by 10 percent.”

“The federal government, which is now $17 trillion in debt, bears the cost of the private option for three years,” Farrer said.

Asked why not wait until then to make changes, Farrer said, “This isn’t free money. We’re paying for it out of our pocket right now. We’re putting our children and grandchildren in debt.”

Farrer, director of therapy services for North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville, said the hospital’s CEO has said how his votes are his decision.

Rep. Walls McCrary (D- Lonoke) said, “When we come back up there Tuesday, if it’s not passed, then it won’t be passed until after (election filing period).”

He said some may be unwilling to vote for the measure until after then, fearing they would draw additional opponents for re-election.