Friday, Mar 7, 2014
Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: The Private Option Passes
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This week, after much debate and national attention, the General Assembly reauthorized funding for the Arkansas Private Option. I have now signed the bill into law, meaning that more than 100,000 Arkansans will keep their health insurance through at least June of 2015. Tens of thousands more will become eligible and insured, and hundreds of millions of federal dollars will continue flowing into Arkansas to the benefit of our State’s economy.
For those unfamiliar with the Private Option, it takes federal Medicaid dollars and purchases private insurance policies for Arkansans below 138 percent of the poverty level. Most of these folks don’t qualify for traditional Medicaid programs, and work at jobs that don’t offer health insurance. This coverage doesn’t require State tax dollars until 2017, and after that will still be at least 90% federally funded.
Insuring Arkansans who could not otherwise afford it, will bring about a better quality of life for us all. Making available preventive medicine and regular checkups will stop illnesses from becoming chronic and halt certain conditions from occurring. This decreases health costs for everyone, particularly by reducing uncompensated care in our State. The Private Option improves the financial health of our hospitals, restoring income they’ve been losing through lower Medicare payments under the Affordable Care Act. Having more of our population insured will also create thousands of new jobs in the health-care industry, further ensuring our economic stability.
While the benefits of the Private Option are clear, gaining the requisite legislative support was not simple. The creation of the Private Option had always been a bipartisan effort from the beginning. However, appropriating the federal money to pay for the insurance policies required not a simple majority and not a super majority, but 75% approval from both the House and the Senate under the Arkansas Constitution. That is a very high bar to clear for any controversial issue. Arkansas has done it before to generate revenue from natural-gas fracking, and to build our statewide trauma system. Now, we’ve achieved 75% approval for the Private Option twice, and nationally, that has drawn as much attention as the program itself.
Other states have been closely watching Arkansas on this issue. As the rollout of the Affordable Care Act continues to be controversial, many state governments have flatly refused the Medicaid Expansion offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Our Arkansas-crafted alternative has piqued a lot of interest. While the needs of every state are different, they all have common problems: working citizens with no means of insurance; hospitals struggling from uncompensated care costs; and federal Medicare payment cuts. What they don’t have is the steep 75% mandate for legislative approval that Arkansas has. For all these reasons, versions of the Private Option may continue to develop in other states.
I never expected my final years as governor to be centered around health care after years of focus on education and economic development. But healthy kids perform better in school, and a healthier workforce can attract more companies. It will be up to future governors and legislators to decide whether to maintain or change the Private Option. For now, it offers a chance for Arkansans to lead healthier, happier lives.