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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Finding Answers in Washington

This past week, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. As governors gather from across the country, we always find that we share many of the same concerns. Currently, we share frustration over the manufactured budget crises in Congress. This most recent crisis has created national anxiety over the effects of sequestration and its funding cuts. Governors realize that, over time, we may have to accept our fair share of cuts in order to address our national debt. We also know that more responsible action on Capitol Hill would have allowed us to completely avoid this latest crisis.

I sat on the NGA’s Natural Resources Committee, where we discussed the increase of extreme severe weather events in recent years. Arkansas and many other states endured historic flooding two years ago, followed by historic drought only one year later. Both the Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pledged continued support for preparation and response. As our climate continues to change, we may see these extreme conditions more often.

Despite these worrisome topics, the biggest news we learned in Washington has brought optimism to our State Capitol. For months, I’ve worked to convince our lawmakers to accept federal money to insure about 250,000 of our citizens. Most of these Arkansans are the working poor, people who have jobs but don’t make enough to afford insurance premiums. Federal funds would pay for that insurance for three years, and eventually Arkansas would share 10% of the cost. This is an opportunity to help our people lead healthier, happier lives. Our hospitals would see reduced burdens for uncompensated care, expenditures that often end up costing all of us more.

In my discussions with our legislative leadership, I have been asked repeatedly to find ways to secure insurance for at least some of these Arkansans through the private sector. Many see private insurance as a more desirable alternative to simply placing newly eligible Arkansans in existing Medicaid programs. So, when I visited D.C., I met with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

I asked for Arkansas to have the flexibility to pursue such ideas. She told me that, in fact, Arkansas could place as many of these newly insured clients into our health-insurance exchange as we wished. The federal government would still cover the costs for the first three years, but now these Arkansans could receive private insurance.

This news has sparked new discussions at the State Capitol. Such flexibility allows us the option to look at targeted co-pays and cost-sharing as part of potential new insurance policies. Nothing is certain yet, and a three-quarter supermajority of both the House and Senate is required for any additional insurance coverage to occur. However, we are definitely making progress with this new option on the table.

Arkansas continues to stand in good stead among our fellow states. Our efforts to reform health-care payments received a lot of interest at this meeting, as did our continued responsible budgeting. All states face challenges ahead, but sharing ideas and opportunities will better equip Arkansas to face ours head on.