As the U.S. Senate delays recess to work on healthcare reform, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday (July 11) reiterated his stance that the draft bill needs to improve before lawmakers vote on legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act.
“As I have indicated, the current Senate bill that is in draft form is really not going to work over the long term and solve all the problems that we need to have solved, so I think they are looking at a better way and we are trying to contribute to that,” Hutchinson told reporters at a meeting of the Little Rock Rotary Club.
In speaking with reporters afterwards, Hutchinson said he continues to have conversations with Arkansas U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both Republicans, concerning the ongoing discussion to replace the nation’s healthcare law, commonly known as Obamacare.
“I have stayed in touch with them … also communicated a continuing dialogue as to more specifics and ways to improve it and they been very responsive and we’ve been going back and forth on new ideas and ways to resolve it, and I know there is a lot of discussion that is going on about a third way or a different approach to it,” he said.
Asked about a new bill floated by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would replace and repeal the Obama administration’s healthcare law at a later date, Hutchinson said he would also oppose such legislation.
“I am for repeal, replace and reform, but I am not for repealing it and then we will figure out what to do down the road. That is very unstabling to our medical community and our citizens that rely on some continuity of care.”
Hutchinson also refused to comment on a recent New York Times story concerning meetings that Donald Trump, Jr. and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with a Russian official to find “dirt” that would incriminate Hillary Clinton during the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign.
“That is a Washington, (D.C.) storyline that I don’t need to wade into,” he said. “I am much more concerned about the future and the challenges of North Korea and what we’re doing in Syria versus the past.”
DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED WAITING LIST REDUCED
Earlier at the Rotary Club meeting, Hutchinson made a surprise announcement to the audience of more than 200 that the state has made strides in reducing the number of those waiting for home-based medical care and providing treatment for mental-health issues and substance abuse.
As part of Hutchinson’s 2017 legislative agenda, the Legislature designated money from the Tobacco Settlement Fund that has allowed DHS to reduce the waiting list of more than 3,000 developmentally disabled Arkansans seeking in-home care. Hutchinson proudly told the Rotary Club members that 500 developmentally disabled residents in Arkansas will soon move off of the Department of Human Services’ waiting list for in-home medical assistance.
“I am pleased that we have made it a priority to care for the most vulnerable in our state,” Hutchinson said. “With the support of the legislature, my administration has been able to significantly reduce the number of developmentally disabled who are currently waiting for in-home care.”
In speaking with reporters after the Rotary Club meeting, Hutchinson said the tobacco settlement funds were available after the state recently closed out the fiscal 2017 budget with a surplus of $15.7 million.
“It did not have a designated purpose, so we assigned that revenue stream to reducing the waiting list,” he said. “So this took legislation and it passed through the General Assembly this last year, we implement the rules and because of that, the services are beginning to provide to 500 that are targeted to reduced that list.”
Hutchinson said he hopes that number will continue to expand, and the other 80% of the state’s developmentally disabled population that has been on the waiting list for more than a decade will soon be provided those same services.
In addition, under DHS rules that went into effect July 1, those with substance-abuse and mental health issues will now have quicker and simpler access to treatment and counseling. Those new rules allow and encourage new providers to become certified to accept and bill for Medicaid beneficiaries who need outpatient mental health and substance abuse services.
“It is no secret that the abuse of opioids and methamphetamines is a growing issue in dire need of a solution. We must have a system in place to help people who struggle with addiction,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “We have expanded the services that Medicaid covers, and for the first time, we are allowing counselors to house their practices in the same building with physicians. This common-sense approach will increase access to addiction treatment by allowing doctors to send a patient directly to a counselor, rather than hoping the patient will keep an appointment across town a week later.”
SENSITIVE LITTLE ROCK ISSUES
Hutchinson also tread lightly on two topics he noted were very sensitive to the mostly Little Rock audience – crime and education. The governor provided some details of his multi-jurisdictional, investigative joint task force announced last week that will aid the Little Rock Police Department in quelling recent rising city violence in the wake of the Power Ultra Club shooting that left 28 people injured on June 30.
“I do believe it is to the point where we have to have an enforcement effort to try to keep our streets safe, our communities safe, and children safe,” he said. “The state role is not to supplant (Little Rock) because the city is responsible. It is a city local enforcement effort and I simply want to back them up an assist in any way we can.”
Hutchinson also told the civic club members that he hopes at some point in the future to return the Little Rock School District back to the local control. However, he said when he was first elected governor, he had a constitutional responsibility to make sure all students in Little Rock were properly educated.
Because state law calls for all Arkansas students to have an “adequate and equitable” education, the state Education Department assumed jurisdictional control of the district after six schools were cited for underperformance.
“That was not the most popular decision in Little Rock,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said he gets a lot of calls from Little Rock city and local leaders asking him to return control of the district back to community, but added that all of the schools in the district must be removed from academic distress for that to occur.
“Let me tell you, there is no one that wants (local control) to happen more than me, but at the same time we’ve had 3 of those six schools come out of distress … but three remain,” he said. “And I don’t believe it is right to shortchange these students in Little Rock and say ‘we’re not going to do our state responsibility’ to work to ensure adequate, fair and equal success across all the schools in Little Rock and our state.”
Hutchinson ended: “As soon as we see that success and performance, we want to be able to turn back to the city of Little Rock and local control.”