By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
This next month, legislators will debate whether or not the private option should continue as Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s version, Arkansas Works.
What’s all the fuss about? I’ll try to answer your questions.
What exactly is the private option?
Let’s start with the background. The Affordable Care Act, which created Obamacare, expanded the number of Americans eligible for Medicaid, the program that pays for medical care for poor people. Americans with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level became eligible. Meanwhile, the act cut the federal government’s reimbursements to hospitals that serve a high number of uninsured patients, who often don’t pay for their own care. The assumption was those people would be on Medicaid.
But then the Supreme Court ruled that states could choose whether or not to participate in the Medicaid part. Most Republican-leaning states said no, but their hospitals’ reimbursements are still to be cut. Arkansas in 2013 said “Yes, but.” Instead of putting people on Medicaid, a government program, it used those dollars to purchase private insurance. Republican legislators and Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration created it, and the federal government approved it.
What have been the results?
As of the end of January, 267,590 Arkansans had qualified. A Gallup poll last year found Arkansas’ adult uninsured rate had dropped from 22.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2015 – the country’s biggest improvement. Hospitals are treating fewer patients who don’t pay.
Other states that turned down the Medicaid money have faced consequences. Rural hospitals have closed. Oklahoma this week proposed cutting what Medicaid pays doctors and hospitals by 25 percent. That’s huge because Medicaid already doesn’t pay much, which is why many doctors won’t treat Medicaid patients. Louisiana, which first said no to Medicaid expansion under a Republican governor, recently elected a Democrat who promised to take the money.
What do opponents say?
The private option as it currently exists would cost $1.63 billion in 2017. Currently, the federal government pays for almost all of it, but next year the state starts picking up 5 percent, which increases to 10 percent by 2020 – assuming Congress doesn’t change the rules and make the state pay more. So the state will have to find that money.
Some legislators have a major philosophical problem with the private option. They say it’s a health care entitlement with roots in Obamacare that increases government dependency and adds to the national debt. Those federal dollars aren’t a gift; they come from American taxpayers, current and future.
So what’s Arkansas Works?
Last year, Hutchinson convinced legislators to approve the private option through the end of 2016 while the state figured out what to do next. In the meantime, he’s proposed Arkansas Works, which changes the program in a few ways. Beneficiaries with incomes from 100 to 138 percent of the federal poverty level would pay up to 2 percent of their income for insurance premiums – about $19 a month. Private option recipients would be referred to work and work training opportunities, though they wouldn’t be required to take advantage of them. Hutchinson would like to do more in that area, but the Obama administration won’t let him.
Is it really that different from the private option?
Why does the Republican governor support government-funded health care?
He says he opposed and still opposes Obamacare, but he inherited this situation. If Arkansas does nothing, the private option would go away at the end of this year, and then all those people would lose their health insurance, and hospitals would have to go back to providing all that uncompensated care. Also, losing those federal dollars would blow a $100 million hole in the state budget.
What does the next month look like?
Legislators are meeting starting April 6 in a special session to vote on Arkansas Works. Then starting April 13, legislators meet in the fiscal session that occurs every even-numbered year. Because Arkansas Works will cost money, it requires a three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate. In other words, 26 representatives or nine senators could kill it.
What’s the vote count look like?
Hutchinson doesn’t have a three-fourths majority yet in either the House or the Senate. But he’s trying.
What will the outcome be?
I don’t know.
Related: The private option ink blot.