- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The defeat of an architect of Arkansas’ “private option” Medicaid expansion doesn’t necessarily doom a program heralded as a way for Republican-leaning states to embrace a key part of the federal health law. But it definitely crushes legislative leaders’ hopes for less drama when they take up the matter next year.

Scott Flippo’s win over state Rep. John Burris in the Republican runoff for state Senate District 17 offered a substantive and symbolic victory for opponents of the first-in-the-nation plan to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.

With no Democrat running for the seat this fall, it takes away a key vote needed in the hunt for the three-fourths support needed to keep the program alive next year. And by beating a former House Republican leader who had been a key figure in the GOP’s rise in recent years, opponents hoped to signal what the consequences would be a program that they argue is no different from the law they deride as Obamacare.

“I think the voters in District 17 and across Arkansas have clearly spoken and they are not happy with Medicaid expansion, they’re not happy with expanding a broken system,” Flippo said the day after his win over Burris.

The runoff was the third major win for private option opponents in an election year that has otherwise offered a muddled verdict on how voters feel about the compromise expansion plan. Those wins include Republican John Cooper’s win in a special election for a northeast Arkansas state Senate seat in January, and Rep. Terry Rice’s victory in a GOP Senate race where had had focused on Sen. Bruce Holland’s vote for the program.

But the private option wasn’t toxic for all its supporters. Republican Sen. Bill Sample survived a primary challenge in May from a rival who had hoped to unseat him by criticizing his votes for the program.

Burris and other supporters of the private option caution that the race shouldn’t be viewed as a predictor of whether the program will survive next year. Burris noted that he was hit on other issues in the race, including his vote to put on the ballot an ethics measure that would have also loosened the state’s term limits law.

“It wasn’t simply a race run on one issue,” Burris said.

But the private option was the issue that received the most attention in the race for a three-county district in the Ozarks currently represented by Sen. Johnny Key, a GOP supporter of the private option who opted against seeking re-election this year.

It also offered a hint of the tone for future primary fights over the private option. That tone included mailers that cast Burris, who regularly derides the health care law as “Obamacare,” as the biggest cheerleader of the law and the Obama White House.

“John Burris chose to work for Obama rather than Arkansas,” one of the pieces that flooded mailboxes in the district leading up to last week’s runoff.

That type of rhetoric overshadowing next year’s session complicates a pledge by incoming leaders of the House and Senate to try and avoid the prolonged fight and back-to-back failed votes that have marked the past debates over the private option.

“If it’s working and the membership is all in agreement that it’s working, hopefully with everyone being able to get their questions answered and they’ll have their input as we go into it, we won’t see as much drama as we may have in the past,” Rep. Jeremy Gillam, the speaker-designate, said earlier this year.

Before Tuesday’s election, the incoming president of the state Senate said he hoped Flippo would keep an open mind and look at all of the issues surrounding the private option before it comes up for another vote next year.

“I understand that this is his central plank, but at the same time there’s a difference between campaigning and legislating,” said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who also helped develop the compromise expansion plan.

The key factor is just how contentious the private option fight gets will be whoever wins the governor’s race this fall. Democratic nominee Mike Ross has said he supports the program and wants to reauthorize it, a position he and others in his party believe is a winning one in the November election. Facing a more sharply divided party over the issue, Republican nominee Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll evaluate the program and whether it’s meeting expectations before deciding whether to push for its renewal.

Though he won’t be a player in the debate next year, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said he remained hopeful that the program would be renewed. He noted that blocking the private option would be just as difficult for opponents, given the vote margins the program has seen in the past.

“I’m still a believer that when you’ve got 70 percent, 72 percent, 74 percent of the General Assembly that favor a policy, it’s going to be hard for 26 or 27 percent to reject that policy,” Beebe said last week. “There may be all sorts of negotiations to get there. That’s what we do all the time.”


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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