An important issue

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Each week, this page features a column written by state Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest. Almost always, Sen. King's column focuses on some aspect of state government, and we appreciate his perspective.

Although Sen. King and I don't speak frequently, we do have occasional contact and I've always found him to be a gentleman and very sincere in his beliefs.

Having said that, the senator and I are diametrically opposed on a number of important issues. Today's example is the expansion of the federal Medicaid program in Arkansas.

Yes, this expansion is an offshoot of the federal Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. After the ACA became law, Arkansas legislators were faced with the option of extending Medicaid coverage to state residents with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. This caused some heartburn among hard-line Republican legislators such as Sen. King, so moderates in the state Legislature crafted a compromise -- the "private option." Essentially, this allowed the state to spend federal Medicaid dollars to help subsidize private insurance coverage for low-income residents.

The results speak for themselves. Approximately a quarter of a million previously uninsured Arkansans now have medical coverage, and the impact on the state's budget has been a positive, since the private option is funded with federal dollars.

Since Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson took office, however, there has been pressure to move away from the private option, and Hutchinson has been caught in the middle of a dilemma. Should he side with the hard-liners and fight to end the private option, without regard to the fact that doing so would actually cost the state somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred million dollars? Or should he go on record as acknowledging that the private option has actually been a good thing for Arkansas? Throw in the fact that the governor is actually counting on the federal funding for the private option to help balance the state's budget AND pay for his ambitious highway program, and he's in a tight spot politically. (To be clear, the federal funds the state receives through Medicaid expansion wouldn't be used directly for highways but would free up state funds that would be used to pay for basic Medicaid should legislators reject expansion.)

The governvor's solution is pure politics. Rather than the private option, Gov. Hutchinson has put forth a new proposal called "Arkansas Works." The name seems intended to appeal to legislators and voters who believe that some Arkansans are abusing the system to gain some advantage without working for it. For the most part, however, the financial aspects are very similar to the private option. The feds still foot the bill, a quarter-million Arkansans don't lose their insurance and Hutchinson's highway plan is still feasible.

But Sen. King and the other hard-liners could throw a kink into the whole scenario.

The bill creating the Arkansas Works program needed a simple majority to pass each chamber of the state legislature, which it achieved without much of a fuss.

Next week, however, comes the real fight. When legislators convene for their bi-annual fiscal session, they will consider a bill funding the Medicaid program. The bill would require 75 percent majorities in each chamber, and it looks like an uphill battle.

I recognize that this is a very complicated issue. Many of you readers may find it boring and/or difficult to comprehend. But it is critically important and the odds are strong that it will impact you one way or another, whether you realize it or not.

As I said at the beginning of this column, I believe Sen. King is a gentleman. I believe he is forthright and sincere in his beliefs. I also believe, on this particular issue, that he is wrong.

* * *

Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.