In 1837, during a debate about a bill regarding paying bounties for wolf scalps, Arkansas Speaker of the House John Wilson left his chair and stabbed to death Rep. Joseph J. Anthony with a bowie knife. He didn’t like something Wilson had said about him.
Please keep that story in mind as Arkansas continues to debate the so-called private option. It will be one of the most contentious debates in memory, but no one will be stabbed on the House floor.
The debate over the private option, however, will dominate next year’s legislative session, just as it’s the most important issue in this year’s campaign.
As you may know, the private option uses Obamacare dollars to purchase insurance for more than 150,000 low-income Arkansans. Many Republican-leaning states have turned down that money, which was intended to enroll people in Medicaid, a government program. In Arkansas, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration instead worked out a deal where those dollars are used to buy private insurance.
Legislators are divided into three camps. Republican opponents say it’s Obamacare, and that it adds to the national debt, and that soon Arkansas will pay more and more for a program it can’t afford. Sen. Bryan King, R-Berryville, described it in an interview as “running up a credit card.” Republican supporters say it’s making lemonade out of lemons, that Arkansas and its struggling hospitals would be foolish to turn down the money, and that the private option’s reforms are being considered by other states and might make the entire health care system better. Democrats are just glad to get those dollars however they can.
The money must be appropriated by a 75 percent majority of both houses of the Legislature every year. This year, it passed with zero votes to spare in the Senate and one in the House. Two of the yes votes in the Senate have already been replaced by candidates who campaigned saying they would vote no. In one case, the losing candidate was one of the private option’s architects, Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison.
So it’s time to write the private option’s obituary, right? Well, no. Regardless of what happens in the next election, considerably more legislators will be for it than against it. Asked if House Democrats would consider shutting down the entire Medicaid budget rather than let the private option die, Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, the minority leader, told me, “I wouldn’t want to commit it to that at this point, but I don’t think anything is off the table, including that.” Among the two major party candidates for governor. Democrat Mike Ross has made it clear he supports it. Republican Asa Hutchinson has not said he’s against it, which means he isn’t.
Even among private option opponents, there are “no” and “heck, no” factions. According to Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, one of the private option’s architects, a number of “no votes” are waiting to have their questions answered, including how many carriers are offering insurance and what the rates are.
Regardless of what they think about the private option in principle, a lot of legislators will have a tough time simply taking insurance away from 150,000 people. King, a consistent opponent, told me that, while he wouldn’t rule it out, “Realistically, I don’t see how a defund, total defund could happen.” Instead of repealing the private option, the Legislature may reform it – maybe significantly. As Sanders described it, “With regard to the policy, we’re not pouring concrete. We’re modeling clay, and we’re shaping the policy as we go.”
So maybe the private option survives close to the way it is, or maybe it’s changed a little, or maybe it’s changed a lot. But simply grabbing a knife and stabbing it to death? That doesn’t happen very often at the Capitol – at least not since 1837.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.