Our Reporter in the paper this week looks at three GOP state Senate primaries that could have an outsized impact on the future of the private option — the state’s privatized version of Medicaid expansion which has been the defining issue in intra-party Republican squabbles. One of those races is the battle between Sen. Bill Sample and retired financial auditor Jerry Neal. Below, some additional outtakes from the Sample-Neal race:
Neal called Sample “the most liberal Republican in the legislature. … I am a conservative Republican and this is a conservative district.” Neal said that he has gotten “a tremendous response” on the campaign trail. “People are happy I’m running. I don’t mention my opponent’s name but if they ask who my opponent is and I say his name, they usually make a face. He’s been totally arrogant and totally out of touch.”
“Every issue that he’s tried to attack me on, I can defend, including the private option,” Sample said. “He’s made it ugly. But that’s him, I’m not going to run an ugly race. My race is always going to be positive.”
Both candidates said there was more to the campaign than the private option. Neal has heavily focused on Sample’s actions during the joint Audit committee’s hearings on the University of Arkansas fundraising scandal. “To me that’s the establishment looking after its own,” Neal said.
“He tried to hammer me on the audit,” Sample said. “He said that I covered up an audit. Now they’ve had two prosecutors that have investigated it and both said there was no money missing.”
As for the private option, as in all the GOP primaries, much of the debate has been about just how Obamacare-ish the private option is (from this week’s Reporter, Neal said: “The private option was a nice-sounding name. I believe it’s Obamacare, Obama says it’s Obamacare, John Bummett** says it’s Obamacare. The only people who don’t are the Republicans who voted for it and then are being challenged in primaries.” Sample said that while in his district “everybody [including Sample] is against Obamacare” he believes that the majority of his constituents agree with him that the private option was the best choice for the state).
“If we hadn’t enacted the private option, we would have been sending $1.2 billion to Washington [in Medicare reimbursement cuts and taxes under Obamacare to pay for the law’s coverage expansion] and not getting anything back,” Sample said. “One of my hospitals over here wrote a letter in support of me. Their term was, they were at the brink of financial disaster because of uncompensated care. You’ve got to help people, I don’t care what you say. It was breaking our hospitals. [The private option] was a tough decision but it was a decision that I felt like we had to make, if nothing else out of compassion.” Sample said that he strongly opposed Obamacare — particularly the individual and employer mandates, and premiums that he believes are rising because of the law — but “we were trying to give the people of the state of Arkansas an option, rather than going with Medicaid expansion and full-blown Obamacare.”
Neal said that the private option amounted to “borrowing money at the federal level and getting ourselves further into debt to give basically free health care to able-bodied adults between the ages of 19 and 64.” He added that he believe it would be “unsustainable for our state after two and a half more years — the state portion will be pretty much enough to explode the state budget.”
I asked Neal what would happen to the 150,000 Arkansans who have gained coverage under the private option.
“My first question would be why did people vote to put people on an unsustainable program,” Neal said. “My second response is, I don’t want people to go to the mailbox and get a letter that says your coverage is stopped immediately. There needs to be a transition off of it. I would think the transition would…need to be about one year.”
Neal did acknowledge that after that transition period, low-income Arkansans would then lose the coverage they’ve gained.
“When we were in the fiscal session and there were those wanting to get rid of the private option, I said give me a solution to it,” Sample said. “Give me an alternative plan. I don’t have one. The question I would have in my mind is: hey guys, what are we going to do now?”
The primary is this Tuesday.
**UPDATE: Heh, Brummett takes to social media to say otherwise.