Tuesday, March 04, 2014

TOP STORY >> Private plan is approved in fifth vote

Leader senior staff writer

Gov. Mike Beebe’s signature is now all that stands between as many as 250,000 working-poor Arkansans and private-option health care insurance.

With a single vote to spare, the state House of Representatives on Tuesday passed 76-24 the scaled back version of the private-option Medicaid expansion that prohibits advertising the health insurance for the working poor and requires some co-pays from higher earners.

Among area legislators, only Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin), himself a North Metro Medical Center worker, voted against the private option, saying, “five, 10 or 15 years down the road, how are we going to pay for it?”

On the heels of Farrer’s comment, state Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) breached the solidarity of the Republican opposition, saying, “It’s not an easy vote and everyone has studied this to the depth of their soul, but I’m going to vote for this bill. Up to this point, I’ve been adamant against it.”

He said he didn’t want to see the 125,000 already signed up for it hurt.

But, Hammer added, he will vote against it when the General Assembly comes back in January unless the private option is a great success.


In addition to Hammer, Republicans who changed their votes the fifth time the measure has been voted on in the House since the session began were Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard of Gravett and Les Carnine of Rogers.

As an appropriation bill, the Department of Human Services bill needed 75 percent — 75 votes out of the 100 representatives — to pass. Passing by two votes, it takes the onus off any one legislator for changing from a “no” vote or a “present,” vote.

In April, the enabling legislation passed the House 77-23. Rep. Nate Bell, who wrote the restrictive amendments in the appropriation bill, and Hammer voted against it. John Hutchison (R-Harrisburg), who voted for private option last year, changed his position. He may have done so to fend off a more conservative challenger for re-election. Both Carnine and Slinkard voted for the private option last session.

A proposal by the Republican faction against private option that would have limited the enrollment period, even in the absence of the money or authority to advertise that limitation, never made it into the bill.


Some Republican insisted again Tuesday they could build a better health-care system from the ground up, but Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood) said afterward, “Where have they been since 1947?” That was when the issue of national health care was first considered, he said.

Nickels said this was really a debate between two groups of Republicans. “The rational people,” he said, “and those who wouldn’t mind shutting down the government.”

Nickels said at the beginning of the session that the private option wouldn’t pass until the filing deadline for those seeking office had passed, and Tuesday he said he felt vindicated.

“If there is a better plan, why are others trying to copy what we’ve done?” asked Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville. “We were not voting on the Affordable Care Act.”


Rep. Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke) said several things finally turned those last three votes. “The speaker has been working real hard to get votes,” he said.

McCrary said the Democrats were also about to take the gloves off and become confrontational with the minority of Republicans who opposed the bill.

When the bill is signed “will depend on when we get it,” said Beebe’s spokesman, Matt DeCample after the vote. “We may or may not have a public signing.”

Nickels won a second victory Tuesday, when his amendment requiring the state Correction Department to pay its workers $10 million in holiday pay that they have been denied over the last 10 years.

On Wednesday, the Sherwood representative will propose another amendment requiring the Correction Department to make a transparent accounting of holiday, overtime and hazardous duty pay.