A single State Senate primary race in Northeast Arkansas may have long-term ramifications in healthcare policy moving forward and it lured Gov. Asa Hutchinson to campaign Monday (Feb. 24) in Jonesboro for incumbent GOP State Sen. John Cooper.
Cooper has been besieged in recent weeks with political ads from his Republican primary opponent State Rep. Dan Sullivan, also of Jonesboro, and one of the central issues defining the race is Arkansas Works, the state’s Medicaid expansion program under the federal Affordable Care Act. Cooper told Talk Business & Politics there has been a sharp downturn in civility in politics in recent years.
“It’s unfortunate … politics has gotten more toxic. It’s hard to even talk about different sides of an issue. It limits our discussion,” he said.
Sullivan told Talk Business & Politics it didn’t bother him that the governor came to Jonesboro to campaign against him.
“There’s no personal animosity here,” Sullivan said.
During a press conference, Hutchinson noted the work requirement passed as part of Arkansas Works was shot down by the federal courts, and the entire program that insures about 250,000 Arkansans is in limbo. Cooper has supported Arkansas Works; Sullivan has consistently voted against the program.
“His opponent (Sullivan) will oppose it every step of the way,” Hutchinson told Talk Business & Politics.
When asked about the program, Sullivan said he’s willing to accept the number of people in the program for now, but changes will have to be made. He noted that Hutchinson has fought vigorously for the work requirement and the program may not be able to sustain itself without it. Sullivan said state costs to maintain the program are escalating and there are only two options to keep it – raise taxes or reduce services.
“I’m opposed to just doing what we’ve always done … It’s going to fail. We know it can’t last,” he said.
Sullivan said that he previously supported a bill that would have moved the program away from private insurance and into the actual medicaid system. Administrative fees from private insurers can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and it would have saved money, he added.
When asked if the program could be moved based on federal parameters, Sullivan said he wasn’t sure but the program right now is unsustainable. Other cost saving legislation to allow advanced practice nurses to perform more medical procedures and to allow for expanded telemedicine would make medical care more affordable, he added.
The impacts to Northeast Arkansas and the rest of the state could be dramatic if Arkansas Works were removed, Cooper said.
To date, the program has cost the state about $284 million, but has provided $1.2 billion in services. Cooper said he didn’t know how many healthcare jobs could be lost if the program was done away with, but it would impact the economy significantly, and would reduce the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people, he said.
“It would be a disaster for rural hospitals,” he said.
Hutchinson took aim at accusations that Cooper opposed protecting the Second Amendment. Cooper declined to support a “stand your ground” bill in committee that many in the law enforcement community opposed.
“John Cooper is a defender of the Second Amendment. He voted against it based on law enforcement,” Hutchinson said.
Sullivan disagreed, saying the National Rifle Association has given Cooper poor marks for his gun legislation vote.
“John got an F from the NRA. They didn’t say no with a B or a C or a D. They said no with an F,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan attacked the governor for allowing refugees to settle in the state. President Donald Trump’s administration has allowed up to 18,000 refugees to resettle in the U.S., but each state’s governor had to decide if they could resettle in particular states. Hutchinson agreed to allow refugees, and Sullivan is concerned about the vetting process that let them into the country.
Hutchinson countered that the refugees have aided the U.S. in their home countries or are fleeing religious persecution. About 18 have been resettled in the state so far, he said, and they are productive members of society.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do. I believe it’s the Christian thing to do,” he said. “We’re carrying out President Trump’s policy.”