Editor’s note: Story updated with additions and changes throughout.
Flanked by 21 legislators, including some facing tough election or re-election battles, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said he wanted to “debunk an argument” that supporting Arkansas Works is supporting Obamacare.
“Let me tell you today, that is not so, and we need to debunk that argument and that presentation because there is no truth to it,” he said during a Tuesday (Feb. 16) press conference at the State Capitol.
Hutchinson is scheduled to address the Heath Reform Legislative Task Force Wednesday to offer details about Arkansas Works, the program that includes his changes to the private option. Created in 2013, the private option uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for individuals with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty line. Those dollars are available because of the Affordable Care Act, the law that created Obamacare.
The private option now provides health insurance for about 200,000 Arkansans. It has been controversial since its beginning and has barely collected the votes it’s needed to survive. A special session is planned for the April time frame for legislators to consider the next phase, Arkansas Works, which requires more personal and financial responsibility on the part of beneficiaries. It will be followed by Arkansas’ even-year fiscal session, where legislators will vote on funding Arkansas Works if it survives the special session.
Hutchinson said he supports repealing and replacing Obamacare. He said he had opposed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 because he opposed its individual and employer mandates, which he said were federal intrusions, and urged its challenge in court.
“But we also have to deal in a real world,” he said, adding that more than 30 states have adopted a Medicaid expansion, making it unlikely the system will collapse.
Hutchinson said that none of 21 legislators with him had voted for Obamacare or has ever supported it. He said he awoke this morning to a tweet that he was embracing “Obamacare death panels.”
“These kinds of attacks are the worst of politics,” he said.
He said Arkansans are frustrated by Washington, “but we should not punish Arkansans simply because we are frustrated with Washington.” He said he would prefer the federal government send states block grants.
“I hope that Washington replaces Obamacare, but until then, we would only be punishing Arkansas by turning down money that 30-plus states have accepted,” he said. “It is perfectly conservative and logical to oppose Obamacare as a federal policy and yet to accept federal dollars under the Medicaid program in Arkansas.”
Hutchinson said accepting Medicaid dollars was the right decision because of fairness. He said it made no sense to subsidize middle-income individuals through the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchange but not to accept those subsidies for lower-income individuals. He said the private option had expanded health care access, and that it was needed to balance the state’s budget. Turning the money back would result in an immediate $100 million budget deficit, “and that is on the conservative side,” he said. Balancing it would require cutting education, ending his proposed highway program, cutting state programs or raising taxes.
“We should not be asked to turn down federal money because we want to make a political point, and that is all that would be,” he said.
Legislators with him included Rep. Lance Eads, R-Springdale; Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers; Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers; Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers; Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot; and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock – each of whom is campaigning against a private option opponent after voting to fund the private option through 2016, when it would end, and create the Health Reform Legislative Task Force.
David Ray, director of Americans for Prosperity Arkansas, issued a statement saying that Hutchinson’s plan holds up a “core” pillar of Obamacare.
“The Governor’s outline for ‘Arkansas Works,’ just like the ‘Private Option,’ relies on Obamacare money to provide a taxpayer-funded entitlement to the exact same population as outlined in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. This is a distinction without a difference, and Arkansas legislators should reject any attempts to cement Arkansas’s status as an Obamacare Medicaid expansion state,” Ray said in a statement.
Arkansas House of Representatives Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, released a statement saying in part, “Today, Governor Hutchinson made it clear that he was taking the lead on health care policy in Arkansas. In fact, Governor Hutchinson didn’t mince words when expressing his desire to continue Medicaid expansion in Arkansas. … House Democrats look forward to working with Governor Hutchinson to protect the future of Arkansas.”