As did many of most of the Arkansas political and journalistic community, I awoke on Tuesday morning with the Private Option on my mind. A legislative committee was to hear testimony on the state’s adaptation of the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — the renewal of which, when the General Assembly convened in another six days for its fiscal session, was at issue. At stake was, is, not only the continuation of the program, which has enrolled tens of thousands of low-income Arkansans in private sector insurance plans, but Governor Beebe’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The administration’s recommendations, about $5 billion in General Revenue money (assorted federal monies to the Highway Department and the Medicaid program will carry total spending well past $10 billion) are predicated on reauthorization of the Private Option.
A lousy morning it was, as you know, slate gray skies and quite below freezing. Ice of varying thickness coated much of the state, making roads and highways treacherous if not impassible; ice covered sidewalks and front porches, testing legs and ankles and elbows to the snapping point and beyond; ice bent tree limbs to the snapping point — and beyond. So a good day to work from home, at least the first half of it; the legislative panel would not meet until the afternoon, when the prospect of climatic normalcy seemed realistic, and in the meantime there was heat and light and the phone and cable TV and the Internet.
Whatever you think of the Private Option, of the Affordable Care Act in any incarnation or permutation, whether you are concerned at all about it or obsessed with it or merely quietly contemplating it, the P.O. can fly out of your mind in a flash when the lights flash. Flicker, then flash. Or so it seemed. And that noise: that out-of-nowhere Rice Krispies Snap …Crackle … Pop. But louder, much louder, than any cereal: SNAP! CRACKLE! POP! (The CRACKLE, especially).
And then darkness. All at once. The overhead lights and the desk lamp, gone. The computer screen and all that was on it, including the stuff you had written (and it was the very best stuff, you know) since you last hit “Save” — black. And the television set, with the news briefs crawling on one side of the screen, one of them noting that the U.S. Senate would shortly vote on the farm bill (Pryor and Boozman, both “aye,” but no suspense there) — it snapped off after it crackled and popped. The speaker on the phone was content to merely, momentarily, hiss. The heat vents, with their softer, reassuring hiss, fell silent.
Lose your electricity and what it means — not only creature comforts and household conveniences, but heat on a freezing day, light against the ominous overcast and the black night to follow — suddenly the Private Option, and whether the state House and Senate Republican leadership can preserve its own handiwork of the previous year…
No, you want your power back and if it doesn’t come back on right then, right there, you want to know when it’s coming back. You think to the ghost of Christmas past, the record-breaking Yule blizzard of only two years ago, when snap, crackle and pop (darkness already had fallen with the snow) kept you out of your house for days. And to that mammoth ice storm of 2000, from which portions of the state required not days but weeks to recover.
And you think, too, about a few friends of yours, and the ribbing you gave them after they’d shelled out thousands of dollars for natural gas-powered home generators, those refrigerator-sized units that come online automatically (do they snap, crackle and pop when they activate?) after a few seconds of lost commercial current. Would they have the last, larger laugh? And would they open their home to you and yours if your outage continued into the night, or remind you of your lame joke, tell you to look for a motel and shut the door in your face?
We caught, I caught, a break: after a few minutes there came another SNAP — no CRACKLE or POP this time — as the juice again flowed. And the warm air from the vents. Of course the computer and television modems had to be re-set, a minor task quickly accomplished. The crisis, as it were, had passed. But the weather guys and the highway guys were cautioning that a long cold night, a long cold week, was still ahead, as was the threat of more ice.
But about the Private Option: I snuck out for lunch with a legislative source, a senator who said he’d been told the House could be expected to continue the program by a margin rather larger than the three votes of last year. But his chamber, he sighed — well, it would warm things up.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.