Friday, March 07, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Our hats off to legislators

Our profiles in courage today include House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot), who on Tuesday pushed through Arkansas’ unique private-option insurance program despite obstructionism by a small minority that did not understand the stakes involved.

Carter would not give up despite huge odds: Although the Senate had previously funded the private option, the House still needed a 75 percent supermajority to overcome the objections of two dozen lawmakers. In the end, three solidly conservative representatives — Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), Rep. Les Carnine (R-Rogers) and Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard (R-Gravette) — voted for the private option, which passed 76-24.

Local representatives who backed the private option all along include Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Jim Nickels (D- Sherwood), Rep. Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke), Rep. Patti Julian (D-North Little Rock), Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) and Rep. Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia).

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) sponsored the private option in the Senate with the support of Senate Majority Leader Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot). The decisive vote in the Senate came from Jane English, who switched her vote in favor.

In fact, all of our local legislators backed the plan, except Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin), about whom the less said the better: He demagogued the costs involved and disingenuously claimed he was only trying to lower the national debt. He also didn’t understand that had the private option failed, Medicaid would have still been expanded to thousands of the state’s working poor, but in a far more expensive way with the federal government managing the program.

Medicaid will fund 100 percent of the program until 2017, when Arkansas will pay 5 percent of the cost — far less than the state’s 30 percent share of Mike Huckabee’s ARKids First program, which provides coverage for 70,000 children. The state’s share will rise to 10 percent in 2020. The additional federal money flowing into our economy as a result of the private option will exceed $1.5 billion over the next decade. Even with Arkansas’ modest share of the cost of the program, that’s still a net gain of $712 million.

Farrer, who runs the physical-therapy program at North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville, could have done the honorable thing and thrown the struggling hospital a lifeline. With his no vote, he let North Metro down, which faces a shaky future — although it should fare better under the private option. The hospital will lose about $1 million in Medicare funding, but it will gain about $1.1 million with the private option. No need to thank its therapy manager for that.

It’s a sensible plan, as Speaker Carter said after the vote. It allows individuals making under $15,414 a year and families of four making less than or $30,000 to shop for a private-market insurance plan. The premiums are paid with federal Medicaid dollars, Carter pointed out.

For a poor state like Arkansas, the private option makes plenty of sense.

Many of the legislators, including Speaker Carter and Reps. Perry, McCrary and Nickels, who fought hard to have the private option approved, are term limited, at a time when their political skills are most needed. No need to bring back the old days when lawmakers stayed in office for decades, but it will take skilled politicians to avoid another prolonged battle next year over the private option.

Here’s to our local legislators, except one, for doing what’s right for Arkansas.