Pryor, Cotton spar over hospital-funding vote


LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., on Tuesday called on his Republican election opponent to explain a 2013 vote against a bill that benefited Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Pryor spoke to reporters in a news conference outside the Little Rock hospital, where he was joined by the family of a North Little Rock boy who has received treatment at the facility. He accused U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, of favoring special interests over Arkansas and discussed his decision to bring his own medical history into the race.

A spokesman for Cotton said he has voted numerous times for funding for the hospital and blamed Pryor for sequestration cuts that affected the facility.

Pryor said Cotton has never adequately explained why he was the only member of the Arkansas delegation to vote against Senate Bill 1557, the Children’s Hospital GME (Graduate Medical Education) Support Reauthorization Act. The bill, which became law, reauthorized up to $330 million a year for graduate medical education at children’s hospitals, including Arkansas’ only pediatric hospital.

“That funding helps us support 170 full-time residents here at Children’s Hospital,” Pryor said. “The bottom line is if my opponent would have had his way, we would have been training fewer pediatricians, and that would have hurt health care in Arkansas.”

Pryor said only one explanation makes sense: That Cotton was acting on instructions from the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has provided financial backing for Cotton’s campaign.

“From my standpoint, it’s a vote against Arkansas families, it’s a vote against Arkansas jobs, and it’s really a vote against our future,” Pryor said.

Jason Green of North Little Rock told reporters his 11-year-old son has a condition, which he declined to name, that requires access to pediatricians and said he was “disappointed” with Cotton’s vote.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has released television ads on the matter, prompting a response ad from the Cotton campaign.

Cotton spokesman David Ray said Tuesday that Cotton voted against Senate Bill 1557 because he believed it had been fast-tracked to the House floor without giving members enough time to read and review it, not because of opposition to the GME program.

“These attacks against Tom Cotton reek of desperation,” Ray said. “Tom Cotton supports children’s pediatric research, plain and simple, and he’s voted for it five times. Senator Pryor and his allies have been in Washington so long they’ve forgotten how to tell the truth.”

Ray also said it was Pryor who voted for legislation that actually led to tens of millions of dollars in funding cuts for the GME program at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. That legislation was the Budget Control Act of 2011, a compromise bill that allowed the debt ceiling to be raised, to avoid debt default, in exchange for spending cuts. Because a deal on where to make the cuts could not be reached, they were imposed automatically through sequestration.

Pryor also was asked Tuesday about his decision to produce a television ad in which he discusses being a cancer survivor and talks about provisions of the Affordable Care Act that prevent insurance companies from refusing coverage because a person gets sick or has a pre-existing condition.

The health care law, which Pryor voted for and Cotton opposes, has been a major issue in the race. In the ad Pryor does not mention the name of the law, which polls have shown is unpopular in the state.

“I just want people to understand that I’ve been through the system,” he said Tuesday. “I know that basically most Arkansans have been touched some way or another by cancer or by some other serious illness, and we all know that before the law passed medical debt was the leading cause of bankruptcy in this country.”

Asked why he did not mention the law by name in the ad, Pryor said, “When we put the ad together that’s just how it came out.”

He added that the law is “far from perfect” and said he hopes to see a bipartisan effort to improve it after the November elections.