Wednesday, February 18, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Remember Wilbur Mills

In 1965, Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Kensett), the longtime Second District congressman and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, helped pass Medicare and Medicaid legislation that has provided health care to the state’s elderly and poor.

Mills had opposed President Kennedy’s plan to offer health care to those over 65, but, after President Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964, Mills negotiated an ambitious insurance plan that would be paid with Social Security taxes and other federal funds.

A decade later, an escapade with a South American stripper brought down the once-powerful Mills, who died in semi-obscurity in 1992 at the White County Hospital in Searcy, not far from his Kensett home.

A half-century after Mills shepherded Medicare and Medicaid legislation through Congress, Arkansas again leads the nation in providing health insurance to the working poor under Medicaid’s private option. It has helped numerous hospitals, including those in White County, by reducing charity care to those without insurance and offering coverage through the private option and insurance exchanges.

Mills pretty much wrote the law on Medicare and Medicaid, making sure that hospitals and doctors would remain independent. Doctors, for example, can opt out of Medicare and insurance companies play a role in the private option program and insurance exchanges.

Over the weekend, The Leader reported that admissions at North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville have increased 50 percent and uncompensated care has decreased 12 percent thanks to private option.

Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin), who has just been promoted to chief operating officer at the hospital, voted to extend private option for two years, although he was against it before — much like Mills, who opposed Medicare before he was for it. Farrer says he’s against continuing the private option after next year, but, when his hospital starts making money thanks to Medicaid expansion and insurance exchanges, it will be difficult for him, as chief operating officer, to end insurance for hundreds of thousands of Arkansans.

Can you imagine the hospital turning back thousands of patients who might not have insurance after 2016? Arkansans have a way of changing their minds when new facts warrant it. Just look to Wilbur Mills’ legacy, which has helped insure millions of Arkansans.