Rep. Rice, Sen. Sanders discuss election impact on Private Option (Updated)

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Tuesday's (May 20) primary election saw several members of the Arkansas General Assembly survive primary challenges, though there were a few upsets – with one upset potentially having an impact on Arkansas’ Private Option law.

That was the decisive victory Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, claimed over incumbent District 9 Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood. Final results show Rice captured 56.06% of the vote to Holland's 43.94%.

And while there has been some chatter within political circles around the state about what the election means for the future of the Private Option — the state's expansion of Medicaid through purchasing private health insurance for qualified Arkansans — one of Holland's biggest supporters and a co-author of the legislation said it was too early to tell.

"Looking at the results (in) total, it's a bit of a mixed bag," said Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock.

He said that while Holland lost to a staunchly anti-Private Option candidate in Terry Rice, other individuals who supported the legislation initially (in 2013 when the legislation was written and passed) survived primary fights, including Sens. Bill Sample and Missy Irvin.

Republican Rep. John Burris of Harrison also faced a challenge in his race for an open state senate seat, though he will have to face off in a June 10 runoff with Scott Flippo.

Sanders said the results of the election do not definitively spell out where the Private Option could end up in the 2015 legislative session and beyond, something the Little Rock senator claims he and other crafters of the legislation had prepared for last year.

"With regard to the Private Option, we're not pouring concrete," he said. "What we're doing is molding clay. It's a work in progress with respect to implementing the law fully."

For his part, Rice would not commit Wednesday (May 21) to whether he would attempt to defund the Private Option in the upcoming legislative session. He added that he would not enter the Senate with any preconceived notions regarding the success or failure of the legislation.

UPDATED: In a telephone call with The City Wire Thursday (May 22), Rice said he wanted to make sure his position on the Private Option was clear.

"I am not for the Private Option," he said. "Medicaid expansion is detrimental to Arkansas."

"When the federal money drops off and the state money kicks in, there's still (going to be) a lot of things in play. That's what I'm going to be doing in the interim (until being sworn into the Senate in January 2015), looking at the facts and figures of what the true costs are. But I still do not see sustainable funding for this."

Rice made the point that if he and other members of the House and Senate ultimately succeed in repealing the Private Option or completely defund the program, it would end up hurting Arkansans who he said now view the program as an entitlement.

"Have you ever seen a quarter-million people cut off a program they feel is an entitlement? I don't want people hurt, but people are going to be hurt regardless (of what happens)," he said, referring to the possibility of Private Option beneficiaries being kicked off the program should its renewal fail.

Rice also mentioned individuals impacted by the overall implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which has seen millions of Americans have their insurance plans canceled due to the plans not meeting federal minimum requirements for coverage. He said no matter what happens to the Private Option as a result of the election, he believes members of the General Assembly are going to start feeling the heat one way or another.

"There are people that are being thrown off their existing policies. …When that happens in Arkansas and people see the true costs, and some people already have… when that goes all the way across the board, even though that may not be the Private Option, it's a connection from what the Affordable Care Act is doing. Then you'll hear an outcry from the people."

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As for whether the District 9 Senate race was the start of that outcry, Sanders — who was a part of group of senators to campaign in Crawford County for Holland in the closing days of the election — said it was not, pointing instead to Rice's strength in the southern section of the district where he serves in the Arkansas House, among other factors in the outcome.

But Sanders said the success or failure of the Private Option will be about more than one election in Northwest Arkansas, saying time will prove that he, Holland and others were either right or wrong.

"What is a speculative discussion (on the future of the Private Option) will be a substantive one very soon," he said. "I've always said the Private Option will rise and fall on the merits of the policy."

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