LITTLE ROCK — Americans would be better off working together to make the federal health care law work as well as possible than "replaying the same old battle," former President Bill Clinton said Wednesday in a talk at his presidential library.
Speaking to about 300 invited guests who included Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, former Arkansas governor and U.S. Sen. David Pryor, and several state legislators, Clinton talked up the federal Affordable Care Act less than a month before the Oct. 1 start of enrollment in the health insurance exchanges, one of the key features of the law requiring nearly all Americans to have health insurance starting in January.
Clinton also praised Arkansas for adopting the so-called "private option," an alternative to a provision in the law that allows states to receive federal funding to expand their Medicaid programs.
The Affordable Care Act provides "lots of opportunities for states to innovate, and Arkansas is Exhibit A," Clinton said. "You should all be very proud of what your representatives and your governor have done."
Under the private option, which still needs federal approval, Arkansas would use federal funding to pay for the state’s working poor to buy private insurance through the insurance exchange instead of adding them to the Medicaid rolls. The federal government would pay all of the cost for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost would increase gradually to 10 percent.
Clinton cited several reasons why he said people should focus on implementing, not blocking, the health care law.
He called it an improvement over the current system, which he said is far more expensive than the systems of countries with comparable income levels without providing better results. In addition to giving flexibility to states, he noted states that pass up federal funding will lose the money to other states; it is "the best chance we’ve had to achieve nearly universal coverage, provide higher quality health care and lower the rate of cost increases;" and "finally, it is the law."
Provisions of the law already in effect, he said, have resulted in more than 3 million adults under age 26 obtaining health coverage on their parents’ plans; 6.6 million seniors paying less for prescription drugs; 105 million people seeing the lifetime limits on their insurance coverage abolished; insurance companies being unable to deny coverage or charge high rates to 17 million children with pre-existing conditions; and 12 million people receiving rebates because insurance companies now must spend 80 percent to 85 percent of premiums on health care.
Clinton also praised the Arkansas Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative, the state program under which health care providers in certain fields will be paid for episodes of care, with incentives for healthy outcomes, instead of being paid for every service they provide regardless of outcome.
"This is like what you did with the (private) option," he said. "You got everybody in the room. You got all the employers, all the insurers, the Medicaid and Medicare folks. You got a pretty broad spectrum economically, socially and politically, and you just figured out how to make it work. I’m very excited about this, and I think the state deserves a lot of credit for doing this as well."
Clinton said he hopes Congress will follow the example of Arkansas and other states and work together to implement and improve the Affordable Care Act.
"We’re going to do better working together and learning together than we will trying over and over again to repeal the law or rooting for reform to fail," he said.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, who was one of the main proponents of the private option during this year’s legislative session, said after the speech he was honored by Clinton’s comments on the plan.
"I continue to think that the Affordable Healthcare Act is a bad policy for the country, but meanwhile I’m still convinced we did the right thing in Arkansas for the private option," he said.
Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said Clinton "did a good job pointing out some of the positive aspects" of the health care law but did not change his mind about it.
"What it comes down to is, someone still has to foot the bill on this, and I’m still not quite sold yet," he said.
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement, "This is just the latest attempt by President Obama to try and convince the American people that Obamacare is working. Arkansans know Obamacare isn’t working because they see it every day in the form of delayed rules and mandates, higher premiums, job losses and wage reductions."
Clinton gave his speech as Congress heads into budget battles in the final weeks of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Some in Congress, including Arkansas U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, and Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, have proposed making defunding the Affordable Care Act a condition of passing any spending bills.