Leader Blues

Friday, March 19, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Vote to help Arkansans

U. S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln formulates a novel test for whether she will vote for something in Congress, or at least that is the whole premise of her re-election campaign. Never mind what the president, either party or special interests want, if it helps the people of Arkansas, she will vote for it. If it is bad for them, she will vote against it.

If that were indeed the case and if Arkansas’ six delegates to Congress followed the same doctrine, all four congressmen and both senators would be lining up to vote for the much debated and modified health-care bill. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill tomorrow and, if it passes, the Senate will vote soon afterward, or as soon as it can beat down Republican parliamentary stalls.

Four of the six have already voted for a close version of the bill, but a day before the crucial vote all four now count themselves as undecided on the compromise between the Senate and House bills they had endorsed. Two of the six — Rep. Mike Ross of South Arkansas and Rep. John Boozman of Northwest Arkansas — are not going to vote for any serious health-care bill, not now, not ever, even though both have said the health-care system is broken and needs radical repair.

Boozman is not going to risk angering the leaders of his Republican Party and Ross made it clear that he was going with the loudest and meanest elements of the debate. Those are the people who showed up at his community forums and called his office to say that it was un-American to try to guarantee medical attention for those who can’t afford health insurance or who are denied it because of their perilous health.

Today, it seems likely that Sen. Mark Pryor and our own Rep. Vic Snyder will vote for the bill although they are keeping their own counsel and have made little effort to educate their constituents on what the complicated measures will do. Rep. Marion Berry of east Arkansas has seized on a silly little ruse to oppose a bill that he formerly supported. He is retiring but he does not want some of his conservative white supporters to remain mad at him for helping the black president realize one of his big goals.

Sen. Lincoln — who knows? She has ducked, dithered, temporized and shifted views so frantically for a year that she may simply vaporize before our eyes. She voted for the bill that she helped write. But now she says she will vote against it if the Senate uses a rule that allows a simple majority vote to pass a measure, a rule that she has eagerly supported in the past when a Republican president and Congress used it.

So why is the bill good for Arkansas, or rather especially good for Arkansas? It’s easy. Arkansas will reap more benefits than perhaps any other state, and the rest of the country, principally the wealthy states, will pay for our party. If you thought the union always favored the North, the eastern seaboard and the Pacific states, this bill offers a chance to rectify it. It does this principally in three ways:

Medicaid would be broadened to insure adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line, which this year is $29,327 for a family of four. All 50 states already insure many adults, several more generously than does the new health bill.

But Arkansas covers the fewest of any state — only adults up to 18 percent of poverty. Only Alabama comes close to being that penurious. So the bill would insure all these adults, of which Arkansas has a greater percentage than all but two or three states, and Washington would bear the full cost of their medical care through 2016. After that, the state government’s share of the cost would grow until it reached 10 percent in 2020.

For people between 133 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line, the government would provide a subsidy to help them buy insurance in the private market, including the private policies that are available to members of Congress and other federal government employees. Arkansas has a higher percentage of low-income workers than nearly every state, so like the Medicaid expansion, the premium subsidies would bring a tide of money into Arkansas, a lifesaver to struggling rural hospitals and physicians in poor areas. Medicaid reimbursement rates for doctors would be raised to Medicare levels.

To pay for the new government expense, the bill would impose the current Medicare payroll tax, at a rate of 3.8 percent, on the investment income of individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and couples earning more than $250,000. Investment income has been exempt from payroll taxes since 1965; only the earned income of workers has been taxed. Starting in 2019, an excise tax would be collected on very high-cost insurance policies, those costing $27,500 a year for families and $10,200 for single persons. Those are policies usually negotiated by the big unions, and there are few Cadillac policies in Arkansas.

Insurance companies would pay an annual fee, and makers of medical equipment would pay an excise tax. Fewer than 12,000 of Arkansas’ 2.9 million residents would pay higher taxes, and they have benefited from huge tax cuts the past nine years.

There rarely are benefits from being a largely poor state with few people of great wealth. Here is one.

The hundreds of thousands of Arkansawyers on Medicare would get a $250 rebate this year to cover drug costs when they reach the dreaded “doughnut hole” and lower drug bills in succeeding years.

Voting for the best interests of the people of Arkansas? Tomorrow and next week, we shall see who means it.