What began as a Session with historical implications ended as a lesson in real world governance and bi-partisanship with major agenda items being completed.
The newly minted Republican majorities in the House and the Senate were equally offset by the final Session from Gov. Mike Beebe (D) after decades of public service. The two branches of government found ways to work together, compromise, and find common ground to establish a Session of historic proportions.
Many questions abounded in January. Could a Republican majority lead? Could a Democratic governor work with them? Would this be a disaster? Could people from different parties work together for common goals for the good of the people? (As a side note, am I the only one who sees this as a case study for our Federal Government?)
Going into the Session, the Medicaid shortfall was the overriding issue and seemed to dominate all fiscal concerns as the deficit was reported to be more than $400 million and needed a stop gap that would easily take all of the surplus and growth and even some of the existing budget to get under control. There were many legislators who refused to believe the number was that great and were insistent on finding ways to curb fraud, abuse, and other inefficiencies, and at a minimum, asked a lot of questions.
After a continual barrage of these policy initiatives, the shortfall continued to fall with no real explanation until it came in around $60 million. Imagine that, just 4-5 months ago what was a $400 million shortfall became $60 million. It was a huge difference and one that was addressed with the surpluses built up in the last two years from growth in the state receipts and multiple policy points made to make sure these things don't happen in the future.
There was also much talk of Medicaid expansion and at the beginning of the Session, I was of the firm opinion that this would not be handled in the Session. We simply didn't have enough information and seemingly there were more questions than answers.
That quickly became an after-thought as several conservative legislators continued to push for answers, work for solutions, and come up with a plan that would accomplish health care for many and be a possible model for the nation.
By the end of March, there were several positive responses from the Feds to specific questions that would allow us to take the monies distributed to our state in the amount of about $1 billion a year and use them in a way that WE deemed to be best for our citizens.
It was a radical deviation that even allowed us to use that money to take people off of Medicaid and put them on private insurance, hence the new name "Private Option.”
At the same time, there were many people (and special interest groups) who simply wanted us to do nothing. They decried that we were implementing Obamacare, which we were and are not.
They said we were taking the Feds word that things would work out with no provision for what would happen if it didn't. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is provision after provision in this law that states that if the Feds changed course, withheld money, or simply altered the plan, we were automatically out of the program, and new enrollees in this health care option would be signing documents that stated they knew of this as well. You can't get more protected than that.
To look at it bluntly, there were a majority of Arkansans opposed to Obamacare and didn't want it implemented, and count me in that number. They felt like us doing nothing would somehow help stop it. Not so. We were going to get it whether we liked it or not. It has been declared to be the law of the land.
This new option recently passed in Arkansas stops nearly $40 million in penalties to Arkansas businesses who don't implement it. It is also shown to save $178 million in 2015 alone. In my opinion, after reading many articles and seeing many pieces of data, this was the most conservative option available and crafted. It passed by a narrow margin in both chambers and hopefully will have a great effect on the health care landscape in Arkansas.
Only time will tell on this and it could all unravel with changes in Washington. If so, this will all be for naught.
A follow up synopsis later this week will focus on the other major initiatives addressed in the 89th General Assembly.