Private option on shaky November ground


Almost 130,000 Arkansans have been approved for health insurance coverage under the private option, but whether it survives another year depends on three other sets of numbers: 75, 27, and 11-4.

The 75 is the number of House members who must vote yes next year — and every year — for the private option to continue. The 27 is the number of supportive senators required. And 11-4? That’s the date of the next election.

Created mostly by a group of Republican legislators, the private option accepts Obamacare dollars intended to enroll more poor people in Medicaid, and instead uses that money to buy them private insurance.

Many other Republican-led states said no to that money, but its supporters reasoned that a poor, rural state like Arkansas ought not to turn it down, and they believe that the program is introducing needed market reforms into the health care system. Several states have followed Arkansas’ example.

Opponents say it’s not “private.” It’s just more Obamacare.

We’ve seen in the past few weeks how shaky the private option’s support has been. In Arkansas, spending bills require 75 percent support in both chambers. In the Senate, the private option passed with no wiggle room, 27-8. It passed the House with one vote to spare, 76-24.

Conceived mostly by Republicans, the private option has split the Republican Party almost in half, while all Democrats have supported it. As we’ve seen the past few weeks, minds aren’t easily changed, so its survival largely depends on Democrats and supportive Republicans winning in November. In the one election since the private option was passed, Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, a private option opponent, defeated a Democrat who was a private option supporter.

In the state Senate, the numbers clearly favor the opponents. Two of the yes votes aren’t returning, and two of the Republican yes votes face opponents in their own party primaries. Meanwhile, seven of the eight Republicans who voted against it either are running unopposed or don’t face an election because they are in the middle of their terms. The only no vote in danger of losing a seat is Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, but her opponent is also a no. She voted yes in 2013.

Meanwhile, eight House Republicans who voted yes this year aren’t returning to the Legislature, and another, Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, is running for the state Senate in a contested Republican primary race. One Republican yes vote, Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers, faces a primary challenge in her own party.

All 48 House Democrats and the Legislature’s lone Green Party member voted yes. Nine won’t be returning, while 14 drew Republican opponents.

That’s 33 out of 76 yes votes that either won’t be back or must win an election against a Republican who may or may not be a private option opponent. Meanwhile, another yes vote, Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, opposes the private option in principle and hopes to end it next year if he’s re-elected. Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, voted yes Tuesday after always voting no previously. His support is soft, to say the least.

Unlike the Senate, the private option opponents, all Republicans, will see changes in their ranks as well. Seven aren’t returning, while five face Democratic opponents in the general election who presumably would be supportive of the program. Two Republican opponents face primary challengers.

Republicans have been winning a lot of elections lately in Arkansas. Before President Obama was elected, there were five Democrats and one Republican in the state’s congressional delegation. Now those numbers are reversed. In the 24 state Senate races pitting a Republican against a Democrat since Obama’s election, Republicans are 19-5.

If that trend holds, and it probably will, the party that’s always supportive of the private option will probably lose seats to the party that supports it about half the time. Remember, it passed with one vote to spare this year.

• • •

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.