Rep. Nate Bell Brian Chilson

When the Mena Star reported that Ninth Street Ministries would close its free medical clinic for the uninsured this month because nearly everyone in the mountains and glens around the town had gotten insurance through Obamacare, the story went viral on the Internet.

It was an example either of Obamacare’s success or its cruel failure, and thus the Mena charity clinic becomes an allegory for the whole drama of Obamacare, which has dominated American politics for five years.


Mena has a history of quaintly standing in the big currents of history. In the late 1920s, Commonwealth College, a left-wing workers school, moved from the hamlet of Ink to Mena, which had just rid itself of its last blacks and welcomed the Ku Klux Klan. (The county’s black population, by the way, has climbed back to 14.) A few years later, amid the unrest of the Great Depression, state and national politicians were investigating the Mena school’s faculty for agitating and promoting the un-American idea of racial and worker solidarity. Twenty years later, Commonwealth’s star scholar, a lad named Orval Faubus, by then the governor of Arkansas, would become the symbol of defiance of the federal courts and the Constitution, and one conservative author traced it back to Mena.

By the 1980s, Commonwealth was gone and a rogue named Barry Seal was running guns for President Reagan and Oliver North to the Nicaragua Contras from the Mena Airport and smuggling back cocaine for the private markets. The CIA directed a cover-up. By 1992, conservatives had turned the Mena airport into a Bill Clinton/CIA operation.


But there seemed to be nothing the least unsavory about either the Mena poor people’s clinic or its folding, but rather it was a parable about compassion and humanity rewarded — that is, until the story hit the Internet.

The clinic is a project of the First Baptist Church of Mena. One day a week since 1998, volunteer doctors and nurses have seen patients who are uninsured and can’t afford medical care. Until late this winter, the place was packed on clinic days. About 300 patients a month, sometimes many more, came from the countryside for care at the small frame building on Ninth Street. In February, only 80 showed up, then three in March.


“Because people are qualifying for insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, our free medical clinic will not be needed anymore,” said Stacey Bowser, a registered nurse and businesswoman who runs the clinic. “This will conclude our mission.”

The clinic’s closing was a matter of some currency in Arkansas because Mena’s state representative, a farmer and building contractor named Nate Bell, has been the legislature’s most virulent critic of Obamacare and particularly of the feature that lets very poor workers and their families get insurance through Medicaid and the so-called “private option.”

With the promise that he would help pass the Medicaid appropriation, Bell got legislators and Gov. Beebe to go along with a proviso that prevents the state from using some $16 million of federal aid to educate people about the availability of affordable insurance and to help them enroll. His goals, he said, are to kill the whole insurance program when the legislature meets next January and, meantime, stop any more people from getting health insurance. But about 165,000 Arkansans enrolled in Obamacare through Medicaid this winter, before Bell’s ban took effect, and another 45,000 who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid bought insurance through the Obamacare exchange.

The clinic’s announcement that, thanks to Obamacare, its charity would no longer be necessary seemed to sound a triumphal note.


The Mena Star’s story hit the Internet and its website was soon swamped. Obamacare success stories were in vogue. All the critics’ predictions and prayers that people would reject Obamacare and stay uninsured proved to be forlorn. But in the Republican blogosphere, where Obamacare is topic one, Mena symbolized Obamacare’s failure. It had replaced private charity with government giveaways. One social networker said it was further proof that Obamacare was bad for American business. It had shuttered a thriving “business” in the town of Mena.

Mena reminds us that these poor people’s clinics played a key role in the healthcare reform movement. Wendell Potter, a hero for healthcare reformers, was an insurance executive who had been an architect of the campaign in 2007 to stop insurance reform as it was rising as the central issue in the approaching Democratic presidential race.

By 2009, Potter had experienced a road-to-Damascus moment, resigned and become a whistleblower. He testified before Congress about the strategy of the insurance industry and allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers to strike fear into the country about the coming “government takeover of healthcare” because the industry was sure the insurance overhaul would take the form of a single-payer system or curtail insurance profits erecting competition for commercial insurers.

Potter recounted his conversion. He visited a touring free clinic run by Remote Area Medical in rural Virginia, where he saw streams of people from nearby hills queued in long lines to get basic medical procedures. He took pictures of sick people lying on rain-soaked pavements waiting for treatment.

“What country am I in?” he asked himself. “It just didn’t seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States.”

Potter was imbued with shame for his collaboration in deceiving people about health-insurance reform with scare stories and bogus statistics, an effort that he says now is continuing on a mounting scale. Potter no doubt would admire the Ninth Street Ministries but celebrate its closing as an American success story.