After a regular and special session, four state executions, and floodwaters threatening lives and commerce, Governor Asa Hutchinson has been in overdrive the first five months of 2017.
“It’s been a very busy five months, I’m ready to catch my breath, I’m sure the state’s ready to catch its breath as well,” said Hutchinson, who appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics.
In the most recent special session and with action from Washington, D.C. last week, healthcare has been front-and-center on the governor’s radar. One of the biggest changes to the state’s Medicaid expansion program – Arkansas Works – will move 60,000 Arkansans in the 100%-138% federal poverty level range off of Medicaid and into other alternatives. When asked if that change was good policy or necessary policy, the governor said it was good because it was necessary.
“It’s necessary both from a funding standpoint, but it’s also necessary to sustain the strength of the program over the long term,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is to maximize health coverage for Arkansans with the limited resources that we have.”
Acknowledging that there are political risks to the change, Hutchinson said that not every person who will be affected would be impacted all at once. As individuals come up for renewal, he anticipates a transition process that could take 10 months. He also anticipates a system of stakeholders to communicate options, but expects individuals to take some part in understanding their health insurance choices.
“We are working with the insurance companies, the providers, to make sure that they do everything they can to notify them, educate them, try to transition them over into the marketplace. So, there’s a lot of strategies in place to make sure that happens,” said Hutchinson. “Ultimately, ultimately, we do everything we can, but the individual has to take responsibility. We provide a path for them, they have to have that responsibility and make sure they get enrolled on the exchange, but we’ll do everything we can to make that happen.”
At the federal level, Hutchinson views the recently-approved House GOP plan as a starting point to get the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act unwound. He’s hoping the capitol’s upper chamber will improve the final product.
“What needs to change on the Senate side is that we need to have less of a cost shift to the states, and that’s what we see right now, and that’s a concern, but we want to have an end product that actually saves money for the states, helps us to manage it well, but also helps us to reduce the expense to the federal government,” he said.
Hutchinson expects high-risk pools to help those with pre-existing conditions, although that carries political and life-implicating risks. If the Republican-led plan doesn’t lower premiums and expand access, will it be viewed as a failure?
“I don’t think you can set those measuring sticks,” said Hutchinson. “For example, whenever you look at the premiums, in Arkansas our premiums have been a much more modest rate of increase than other states. Why has that happened? It’s because we have this unique model that those that have been in the Medicaid expansion pool have been in the private insurance market, that gives a larger pool of people in which keeps the rates I think at a lower level. It also expands the risk to a larger pool and it keeps more insurers into the state.
“In terms of the number of uninsured, that’s something we’re going to watch carefully, but it’s also, we’re shifting from a government responsibility to some individual responsibility, and as long as you give people the option as to whether to have health insurance or not, some people are going to choose not to. And so unless you have that mandate that everybody has to have it, then you’re going to have some people who will not do it, will put it off and they’ll wait until they have an injury to be covered… If you don’t have the mandate, there’s some unknown qualities there, but the individual mandate didn’t work and it’s not the right direction,” Hutchinson said.
NO NEW EXECUTIONS ANY TIME SOON
In April, Gov. Hutchinson and the state of Arkansas conducted four of eight planned executions of death row inmates. The two-week schedule was the first time in 12 years that the state has carried out the death penalty. Hutchinson said he learned the legal system in these cases has gotten much more sophisticated.
“I learned that the legal system’s not easy. Whenever you want to give meaning to the law and you carry out the verdict of the jury, there is a international and national advocacy group that tries to fight you every step of the way. Obviously you should have a lot of scrutiny and we had a great deal of scrutiny during those two weeks. I look back on it, I think I made the right decisions, both in setting the dates and doing it in the way we did it,” he said.
When the governor gives the final order to proceed with an execution, Hutchinson described it as a “somber moment” that required reflection.
“You intentionally think about it, and the consequences and the meaning of what you’re doing. I was mentally prepared for it, because I had reviewed all the transcripts, the cases, the law, and I was comfortable with what we were doing in terms of accountability and carrying out the sentence,” he said. “But whenever you give that final word, that only the Governor can give, you want to make sure you dwell upon it, you understand what this means, and I did, and I gave that direction to proceed and I did not do it lightly.”
He added, “It’s not something anybody relishes but it’s necessary and I think again, what we did is what carries out, first, what the people expressed through the General Assembly in creating the law and then what the jury found as well. And people say, well there’s always a place for mercy and that’s true. And I looked at these cases in that light as well, but in each one of those, I determined that not only it gives the law meaning, but that the sentence should go ahead and be carried out.”
Hutchinson will be facing a request for mercy this week. The Arkansas Parole Board recommended executive clemency for death row inmate Jason McGehee. A clemency request is a recommendation that must be approved by the governor to reduce a prisoner’s sentence. This weekend, a 30-day public comment period ends and the decision rests in the governor’s hands.
“Next week, we’ll start reviewing any public comments and make a decision, but no decision has been made yet.”
The governor has also not made any decisions on when another execution or round of executions may take place. Several appeals for inmates remain and the state’s ongoing challenge to find a supply of lethal injection drugs suggest that it may be be months before Arkansas is in a position to restart its execution process.
“I don’t anticipate setting any dates any time soon,” said Hutchinson. When asked to define “any time soon,” he said, “We’ll see. I mean, one, you have to have the request from the Attorney General. I don’t know whether it will be one, two, three and so that’s a factor as to how you set them. Secondly, there is the availability of drugs to do it that we’ll have to measure. And then finally, we’ve just been through a lot, and I don’t think we need to jump back into that responsibility quickly and I think we need to give some time.”
In the Talk Business & Politics interview, Gov. Hutchinson also discussed recent flooding that has devastated parts of the state, an upcoming computer coding tour, and his plans for a vacation later this year. Watch his full interview below.