LITTLE ROCK — One of the architects of the private option, Arkansas’ version of Medicaid expansion, was defeated in an election Tuesday by an opponent of the program, raising questions about the program’s future.
State Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, lost a Republican primary runoff for the Senate District 17 seat to Scott Flippo of Mountain Home, owner of a Bull Shoals nursing home. Burris helped craft the private option along with Sens. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, and David Sanders, R-Little Rock.
During the race, Flippo and others characterized it as a referendum on the private option, which uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for low-income Arkansans. Burris said Friday he did not believe he lost because of the private option.
“I think there were many factors,” he said, adding that “I had a lot of support because of my support of the private option.”
Flippo did not immediately respond to an email Friday requesting an interview.
Burris said he was attacked on a variety of issues, not just the private option. He also noted that Flippo only won with 51 percent of the vote with about 200 votes separating them, so “if a hundred people changed their mind it’s a different outcome.”
Burris said some who voted for the private option fended off primary challengers in May, including Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers.
“I just think every race is unique and every candidate is unique,” he said.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, an outspoken opponent of the private option, pointed out that Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, who voted for the private option, lost a May primary race with Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, an opponent of the program.
King acknowledged that there were other issues in that race and Burris’, but he said the private option “was the 800-pound gorilla in those races.”
“When you have a candidate that’s able to run and has money to get the message out and educate the people on (arguments against) the private option, those people have been successful,” said King, who has argued that the program will be costly for the state.
The Legislature approved the private option in 2013 and renewed federal funding for it this year. The issue has sharply divided Republican legislators and has been the subject of intense wrangling before each vote.
Dismang and Sanders said Burris’ absence will be felt when it comes time to vote on appropriating a new round of federal funding for the program next year, which requires a three-fourths vote in each chamber.
“Obviously it would have been beneficial to have him in the Senate — his background, his understanding of the bill,” Dismang said.
Dismang did not attribute Flippo’s win to the private option alone.
“John did very well in the part of the district that he’s from and is known, and he didn’t do so well in the area that he wasn’t from,” he said.
Sanders said that “losing the input, the work product, the knowledge, experience of a guy like John Burris out of the Legislature will impact a lot of things — and then just losing solid votes, Bruce Holland’s (too).”
It would be incorrect to say the private option played no role in Burris’ defeat, Sanders said, but he said the reason Burris was attacked on numerous issues was because “when they tried to make it just about the private option, that didn’t work.”
Gov. Mike Beebe said the number of issues in the race and the small number of people who voted in the runoff — 7,628 according to unofficial results from the secretary of state’s office — make it hard to draw conclusions about the private option.
“One of the things you can say is 201 people in the state may end up affecting the private option,” he said.
But Beebe said he still believes that with more than 70 percent of the General Assembly favoring the policy, “it’s going to be hard for 26 to 27 percent to reject that policy.”
“There may need to be all sorts of negotiations to get there,” he said.
The Democratic governor also said he believes it will be hard for legislators to end a program that has provided insurance to thousands of Arkansans, allowed struggling hospitals to reduce their uncompensated care costs and brought millions of dollars in federal funding into the state.
Beebe was asked if he thinks renewing the private option in the 2015 session will be the toughest fight over the program yet.
“Nah. I think it’ll be about the same tough fight,” he said.