The first words out of his mouth were telling.
“I’m exhausted,” said State Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris. That’s understandable, because if the Arkansas General Assembly ended this year’s session Tuesday, as was expected, it will have been in session 100 days, marking the longest legislative session since the days of the Great Depression.
The session also included a decision that Eubanks described as the hardest he’s ever had to make and a decision that generated conflicting feelings for the two-term lawmaker from the start.
It was a decision on whether expand the state’s Medicaid program. The proposal was to use federal dollars to allow recipients to purchase private insurance. It was one of the biggest issues facing lawmakers.
When the appropriation bill came to the House floor the first time, Eubanks voted no. The next day, it was brought back up and he switched his vote and it passed. Last Thursday, Eubanks voted no the enabling legislation and it passed.
Eubanks said his second vote on the appropriation was influenced by a number of factors.
“It was one of the hardest votes I’ve ever had to make,” Eubanks said. “I think there were several factors that caused my switch. Small businesses in the state were going to get hit with $35 million in penalties from the federal government if they didn’t offer insurance to employees. I was told that if we didn’t do this, some rural hospitals in the state would have to close. Hospitals in Paris and Booneville could potentially lose between $250,000 and $300,000. I was concerned that if we didn’t pass this, the increased cost in Medicaid next year would prevent some of the tax cuts we passed. Doing nothing would have cost our businesses $70 million. It was a very difficult decision.”
Eubanks also said he considered the economy and economic development.
“If your hospital closes, you can forget economic development,” he said. “Also, more people having private insurance should help in holding down insurance premiums, but I think everyone agrees that premiums are going up next year.”
For Eubanks, there was a bottom line to all this.
“If HHS (the federal Department of Health and Human Services) approves this legislation, it gives us the opportunity to see if we can make this work by putting in it the private marketplace. It could turn into a model for other states,” Eubanks said.
In summing up the session, Eubanks said it was productive.
“We got a lot of criticism early on for addressing social issues like gun rights and abortion, but when you look at the overall session, we got a lot done. We cut taxes, did a private option on Medicaid programs and other things,” he said.
“On some of those things, we may have to wait two years, maybe three or more, down the road to see how they worked out,” Eubanks said.