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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: How Health Care Policy Impacts Prisons

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This week, I spoke at a meeting of Arkansas sheriffs. I speak annually to these dedicated law-enforcement leaders, who are charged with protecting our counties and citizens, including the most remote and rural parts of our State.

Some of these sheriffs are distressed as they see their county jails at or near capacity because of a recent influx of state inmates. When state prisons have no empty beds, the counties help in housing inmates and then are reimbursed. Recently, a crackdown on parole and probation violators created a sharp increase in the demand for those beds in county jails. After previous reforms had reduced our county-jail backup to 500 or less, it has now surged past 2,500 inmates.

My proposed budget for the coming fiscal year has additional funding to both open more state prison beds, and to ensure that county jails continue to get reimbursed for holding state inmates. And this is why, when I spoke to the gathering of sheriffs, the main topic of discussion was health care.

Discussions during the coming legislative session are likely to be dominated by debate over Arkansas’s “private option.” This unique, bi-partisan solution has taken federal funds made available under the Affordable Care Act and helped uninsured Arkansans obtain policies from private insurance companies. Already, 140,000 Arkansans have applied for this improved care, and 88,000 of our citizens have completed the process and are already fully insured. The influx of federal money also has us projecting $89 million in savings, savings that the Legislature has chosen to return to taxpayers.

However, it will take a three-quarters vote of both the House and Senate to re-authorize the private option, ensure that savings occur, and allow those newly-insured Arkansans to keep their coverage. With such large majorities needed in both chambers, it was a close vote last year, and will be again this time.

I explained to the sheriffs that if the private option fails, the additional funds to ease overcrowding and ensure payment for housing state inmates will be much harder to find. Without the private option, there will be an $89 million hole in the proposed budget. And for our criminal-justice system, there are potential perils beyond the current overcrowding.

My current budget proposal cuts $7 million in funding for Arkansas community mental-health centers. With the private option, we no longer need that state money because the providers will be paid with federal funds for both current and new mental-health services. Without the private option, the centers could still lose state funding while also facing the budget hole left by the lost Medicaid savings. Those community health centers would likely have to cut critical services. And when fewer people can find the mental-health services they need, they often find themselves in trouble. Which brings it all back to our county jails and our sheriffs, who would face the specter of still more people entering our backed-up correction system.

Last year, the Legislature approved the private option for good reasons. The only thing that has changed since then is that we have better information, stronger assurances from the federal government, and tens of thousands of Arkansans who now have insurance coverage. This doesn’t mean the issue is simple. It does show that, regardless of how you feel about Washington or Obamacare, the Arkansas-crafted private option remains in the best interests of us all.