LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor said Friday the passage of health care expansion in Arkansas this year vindicated his decision to vote for the federal Affordable Care Act.
"You just saw what the Republican state Legislature did," Pryor said in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau. "They enacted the lynch pin to the Affordable Care Act, which was the expansion of Medicaid in Arkansas. That’s the Republican state Legislature did that. Both houses had to pass it by a three-fourths vote. So that really affirms that this Affordable Care Act is not all bad, if you can get Republicans to say yes to it."
What the Legislature approved was an alternative to the health care expansion originally proposed by the federal health care law. Instead of adding Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to the state Medicaid rolls, as the law proposed, lawmakers approved using federal Medicaid dollars to buy private insurance for that population — estimated at 250,000 people.
The Obama administration has informally OK’d the so-called "private option," but the state still has to apply for a waiver granting formal approval.
"It really affirms that the vote I cast for it was the right vote, because they joined me in that. When the chips were down, the Republicans in Arkansas joined me," Pryor said.
Joining Pryor in voting for the Affordable Care Act in December 2009 was former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, whose support for the law was seen as a significant factor in her defeat by Republican John Boozman in the November 2010 general election. But Pryor said Friday he believes the law is not as controversial as it was then, as evidenced by the state Legislature’s action.
"I think that the health care debate has matured," he said, adding that Republican legislators "read the bill and understood what we’re trying to accomplish there, to try to get more people health care."
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, one of the leading proponents of the private option, said Friday that to claim Republican state legislators have "joined" Pryor is "a huge stretch on his part."
"He voted to add 250,000 Arkansans to a failing government system, and all he did was vote for legislation that put in place a lot of the harmful policies that I believe the private option helped to negate," Burris said.
Burris said those harmful policies include expanding state Medicaid rolls and imposing penalties on employers with 50 or more full-time employees who do not provide their employees with affordable health insurance. The private option is projected to avoid about $35 million in employer penalties in Arkansas.
Burris added that despite his support for the private option, "if I was in Congress I would vote for full appeal, and I would challenge Sen. Pryor to do the same thing."