Two recent polls of likely Arkansas voters suggest that the political labeling of Arkansas’ private option plan has much to do with the plan’s support among voters. Which is to say the plan is less popular when voters are told that it has a connection to Obamacare.

In 2013, a bipartisan group of legislators led by Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, and Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, worked with Gov. Mike Beebe (D) to pass a plan that allowed Arkansas officials to use Medicaid expansion funds from the Affordable Care Act – aka, Obamacare – into private health insurance plans. Funding for what was called the “private option” plan narrowly passed the Arkansas House and Senate and now faces renewed funding in the ongoing 2014 fiscal session.

Beebe and some lawmakers have said private option was Arkansas’ way to avoid the mandates of Obamacare and instead craft a plan that best fit Arkansas. However, other lawmakers, primarily Republicans, oppose private option because they say it is a form of Obamacare and that at some point it could prove costly for Arkansas to support the increased number of people receiving health care support.

A Talk Business-Hendrix College poll conducted Jan. 19, among 520 likely voters around the state, asked the following question.

Q: Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing Arkansas to spend federal Medicaid dollars to provide private insurance to low-income Arkansans through health care exchanges. In the upcoming meeting of the legislature, lawmakers will be asked to continue that program or not. Should the legislature vote to continue this “private option” after this current year?

47.5%: Private option should continue
32.5%: Private option should end
20%: Don’t know

In that poll, two-thirds of self-identified Democrats supported funding of Arkansas’ private option plan and 45% of self-identified Republicans opposed it. Also, 44% of self-identified Independents supported continued funding of private option.

TIED TO OBAMACARE
On Feb. 12, Little Rock-based Impact Management Group polled 1,202 likely Arkansas voters to ask about Obamacare, private option and key statewide races. (The City Wire will have stories later this week on the results of the statewide race polling.)

Following are two questions and results related to Obamacare and Arkansas’ private option plan.

Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Obamacare?

27%: Favorable
63%: Unfavorable
10%: Don’t know

On this question, 58% of Democrats were favorable and 26% were unfavorable. On the Republican side, 95% were unfavorable and only 2% were favorable. Among Independents, 74% were unfavorable and 14% were favorable.

Q: As part of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul plan – known as Obamacare – the Arkansas Legislature passed a law that would add more than 200,000 people to its Medicaid program by using private insurance to purchase health insurance. Do you support or oppose this law?

35%: Support
39%: Oppose
27%: Undecided

As to the private option question, 61% of Democrats supported the law and 16% opposed it. With Republicans, 58% opposed the law and 14% supported it. Among Independents, 45% opposed the law and 24% were in support.

Clint Reed, a partner at Impact Management Group, said anything connected to President Barack Obama continues to be politically toxic in Arkansas.

“The opinion of Obamacare generically has not changed. Almost two out of every three voters still have an unfavorable opinion of the law,” Reed explained.

‘MESSAGING BATTLE’
Reed also said it will prove difficult in Arkansas for officials to separate Obamacare from Arkansas’ private option plan.

“Now, a central portion of Obamacare is the expansion of Medicaid by the states. Arkansas’ ‘private option’ fares better than Obamacare generically but still public opinion finds more people oppose it than support it even when explaining that the law is using private insurance to purchase the health insurance,” Reed said. “Republicans oppose it by a 5 to 1 margin while Independents oppose it by a 2 to 1 margin. This messaging battle looms large as just the mention of Barack Obama moves voters effectively.”

One of the political groups in Arkansas actively opposing private option is the Tea Party. The Impact Management poll asked the likely voters their opinion of the Tea Party.

Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party movement?

39%: Favorable
40%: Unfavorable
21%: Don’t know

On the Tea Party question, 11% of Democrats were favorable and 72% were unfavorable. On the Republican side, 65% were favorable and only 13% were unfavorable. Among Independents, 48% were favorable and 27% were unfavorable.