Most of the candidates running for the Legislature’s three open seats support Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works program, which uses federal dollars under Obamacare to purchase private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans.
Of the nine candidates running for those seats, six said they support keeping Arkansas Works even while some pointed out they oppose Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act. One is opposed, and one said he was unsure of his position. The other did not respond to requests for comment.
Those votes could be important, because there’s a chance they may be needed in a special legislative session to fund the Department of Human Services budget. That would occur if lawmakers can’t fund DHS in the fiscal session that starts Feb. 12.
All appropriations require the votes of at least 27 senators and 75 representatives. That includes the DHS appropriation that contains Arkansas Works, which was created in 2013 and previously known as the “private option.” In past sessions, opponents have tried to kill the program through the appropriation process.
In the 2017 regular session, DHS’ appropriation failed twice in both the Senate and the House. It finally passed with the minimum 27 votes in the Senate. The House passed it 77-13 with 9 not voting and 1 voting present.
In the upcoming fiscal session, only 33 senators will be seated, but all appropriations still will require 27 votes. Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, who voted for the appropriation last year, resigned to work for the Southern States Energy Board. Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, who was recorded as not voting, died Nov. 16. He had been a supporter of the program but was ill through much of the session.
The House is short one member after Rep. David Branscum, R-Marshall, who voted for the DHS appropriation, resigned to become Arkansas director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.
Their replacements will not come into office until after the fiscal session ends. Primary elections are scheduled for Feb. 13, with runoffs scheduled for March 13. The elections will be May 22.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, the Senate’s majority leader, said recently that the appropriation is a “vote or two” short of passage in the Senate. While he’s optimistic it will pass, if necessary, lawmakers could approve everything but the DHS budget and then return for a special session when the Senate is at full strength. Hendren called that “unlikely but a last resort.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has requested a waiver from the Trump administration that would require some recipients to work or engage in work-related activities. The waiver also would lower the income ceiling for eligibility from the current 138 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent.
Last year, DHS estimated the waiver would reduce the number of Arkansans served by 60,000 Arkansans, but since then the number has fallen by almost that many as a result of efforts by DHS to reduce duplication and serve only those eligible, and also as a result of the improving economy. Arkansas Works currently serves 285,564 Arkansans, down from 344,289 at the beginning of 2017.
WHERE THEY STAND
In Senate District 29, the two Republicans and one Democrat running to replace Sen. Williams all expressed support for the program. The district encompasses parts of Lonoke, White, Faulkner and Pulaski counties.
Among Republicans, Jim Coy of Cabot, a vice president of sales for the customer identity data management firm Infutor Data Solutions, said he’s a yes vote.
“Obamacare was a federal mandate. … I think that Gov. Hutchinson has done an amazing job in developing a conservative approach to Obamacare,” he said. “I agree with what Gov. Hutchinson is doing regarding the waiver because I think the state budget kind of has to come into play, and I think that’s an area where we have to look at what we have, the tools that we have to make these parts work in conjunction with what we have with Obamacare.”
Republican Ricky Hill, an executive vice president with Bank of the Ozarks from Cabot, also expressed support, saying, “The federal government is to blame for the burden placed on state budgets because of Obamacare. I’ve been opposed to Obamacare and remain so. I hope it will be repealed sometime in the near future. Until that happens, I support the governor’s efforts to lessen the negative impact on the state through Arkansas Works.”
Hill also expressed support for Hutchinson’s efforts to obtain a federal government waiver requiring some recipients to work or engage in work-related activities.
Democrat Steven McNeely, a Jacksonville attorney, said he wants the program to continue, but “in the end, we all want healthcare more affordable and more people covered.” He said he is not in favor of reducing the number of insured Arkansans by 60,000, saying it could cause suffering and deaths and a reduction in payment for medical services. “In the end, it is the district’s vote. I would cast it as the majority here tell me to,” he said.
Three Republicans and one Democrat are vying to represent Senate District 16 in the seat formerly occupied by Standridge. The district encompasses Pope and Newton counties and parts of Van Buren, Carroll and Boone counties.
Luke Heffley, a GOP candidate and an Arkansas Tech University employee, said Arkansas Works should continue. As for the waiver request, he said the ceiling should remain at 138% of the federal level. However, “The work requirements that Arkansas has requested and the qualifications or stipulations for those who meet the waiver criteria … seems fair to me.”
Republican Breanne Davis of Russellville, a senior account executive for SAS Institute, a global analytics company, said she opposes Obamacare but would keep Arkansas Works.
“I think it’s hard to just rip something out,” she said. “I think you need to make sure you do it in a way that you’ve got solutions in place.”
She said she would vote for the DHS appropriation because the agency provides too many vital services to Arkansans. She said she supported Hutchinson’s waiver request.
Bob Bailey of Russellville, a retired Entergy employee and owner of Bailey Signature Firearms, said he is opposed to Arkansas Works. Bailey, a Republican, has endorsed Hutchinson’s primary opponent, Jan Morgan.
“Arkansas Works in its present form is unsustainable; therefore, I do not support it,” he said. “No, I would not vote for a DHS appropriation. I do not support the Medicaid waiver.”
The Democrat running for the seat, Russellville community activist Teresa Gallegos of Russellville, did not respond to requests for comment.
In the race for the House District 83 seat formerly occupied by Branscum, one Republican expressed support for Arkansas Works while the other said he had not yet formed an opinion. The district covers all of Newton and parts of Pope, Searcy, Carroll and Boone counties.
Donald Ragland, a retired Game and Fish Commission warden from Marshall, said, “I believe Obamacare is bad for our state and country. As a state, we should continue seeking reforms and efficiencies until the federal government overturns this bad law. Arkansas Works is a step in the right direction while we wait for that to happen.” Ragland, a Republican, said he supported Hutchinson’s waiver request.
His GOP opponent, Timmy Reid, a contractor and cattle farmer also from Marshall, said in a text that he he has not yet formed an opinion but that he is “talking with people on both sides to try and get the good and the bad. And I’m not for taking insurance away from anybody. We need to figure out how to make it work if this is what we are gonna use.”