Tuesday, February 16, 2016

TOP STORY >> Governor: Don’t call it Obamacare

Leader staff writer

With key local legislators behind him, Gov. Asa Hutchinson at a press conference Tuesday insisted that supporting his Arkansas Works plan for Medicaid expansion, which could succeed the private option if it receives a three-fourths vote, is not the same as supporting Obamacare.

Hutchinson alluded to untruthful attacks, saying they came from both the left and right. The governor described them as the “worst of politics.”

His talk was mostly an explanation as to why, while he opposes Obamacare, Arkansas is accepting federal funds for Medicaid expansion.

Hutchinson said, “It would only be punishing Arkansas to turn down federal money that 30-plus states are accepting. It is perfectly consistent. It is perfectly conservative and logical to oppose Obamacare as a federal policy and yet to accept federal dollars under the Medicaid program in Arkansas. It is a logical decision. It is an Arkansas-oriented decision, and it does not embrace the federal policy that is the framework of Obamacare.”

His reasons include that, if the funds are refused, there would be a “$100 million plus gap in our state budget,” Hutchinson said. He argued that such a deficit would mean cuts across the board — to the highway fund, education and public safety — to balance the budget. “We should not be asked to turn down federal money because we want to make a political point, and that is all that would be.”

The governor said he also supports acceptance of the funds because improved health outcomes and access to care have been a positive result, and “it makes no sense to me to say we’re not going to take taxpayer dollar subsidies for the poorest on the income scale for health care when we’re going to continue to accept those federal dollars for those in the middle income category.”

Arkansas Works, he said, advocates for work opportunities and personal responsibility. Hutchinson has been working for more flexibility in the state’s plan for Medicaid.

The governor said he would speak on that at tomorrow’s Heath Reform Legislative Task Force meeting. Hutchinson also, in response to a question, said he’d support a new program to take care of the over 200,000 Arkansans included in the expanded Medicaid program, if the federal government gives maximum flexibility to states and takes a block-grant approach.

Sens. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) and Jane English (R-North Little Rock) have been targeted in the attack ads Hutchinson alluded to. State Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) was the architect of private option when it first passed in the Senate.

After the conference, Williams and English agreed they couldn’t say they support Arkansas Works or how they would vote on it because the plan has not been formulated into written legislation. Not reading it first would be a disservice to constituents, Williams noted.

Hutchinson refused to name the attack groups, saying he didn’t want to get into political campaigns. But Williams didn’t mind commenting on them.

Williams told The Leader they go by several names — Conduit for Commerce, Conduit for Communication, Conduit for Action and others.

He says the groups are being funding by multimillionaires in northwest Arkansas who are trying to buy three seats, including his and English’s.

Just this week, he noted, the group had to retract an ad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that contained “blatant lies” about personal friends of his, that stated his supporters own liquor stores.

Williams also said their assertions that he voted for Obamacare and Common Core aren’t true.

The organizations are violating ethics laws that prohibit them from being directly involved in campaigns, the senator continued. He explained that they’re supposed to advocate for a position. But, Williams noted, he isn’t in a position to file an ethics complaint as he is repeating what he’s been told.

The senator added, “That is a new low. You know we talk about dark money on the national level. It’s in Arkansas now.”

English agreed. She also said, “We’ve never seen this kind of stuff before in Arkansas...It is strange, and it’s really sad and I think it actually is, it should be scary, whether you’re Republican, Democrat or Independent, that there are people who are really trying to control the Arkansas Senate and the House.”

The senator also wanted to deny some ads claiming she experienced personal financial gain as a result of voting to reauthorize private option funding under then-Gov. Mike Beebe.

Hutchinson reminded those gathered at the conference that he opposed Obamacare when campaigning for in 2010 and said he still wants it repealed, changed or replaced because the individual and employer mandates are contrary to freedom.

Hutchinson called the mandates “unconscionable” and a “federal intrusion.” He noted that he pressed for them to be challenged in court. The Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.

“We also have to deal in the real world, and the real world is that over 30 states have adopted that form of Medicaid expansion, and, whenever the Supreme Court affirmed all of the mandates, but left it to the discretion of the states in terms of Medicaid expansion, we all sat there on pins and needles and said it’s going to collapse. Well, it didn’t collapse,” the governor continued. “It’s important in Arkansas that we make decisions that are right for Arkansas.”

He pointed out that Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. State legislators did not vote on it but had to “pick up the pieces.”

Hutchinson argued that the state couldn’t punish Arkansans by denying coverage or Medicaid reform just because it’s frustrated with federal overreach.

The governor also said the legislators who attended the conference were there to listen and be realistic. He is confident that, once the truth is out there to constituents, they will listen to constituents and support Arkansas Works.

He acknowledged that federal policy could change next year with a new president, but said the state needed to base its actions on what it is in place now.

Lawmakers have voted to end private option at the end of this year, so any replacement — Arkansas Works — would have to be approved by January.