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Steve Barnes | Sorting through the news

Back from the road, weeks away from the home front. A catch-up day or two invariably is necessary to sort through the backup, the anticipated and the unexpected.

If this was a surprise, it was a minor, yet happy one. The Gallup Organization reports that Arkansas recorded the largest drop of any state in the percentage of uninsured residents from 2013 to mid-2014. More than one in five (22.5 percent, to be precise) declared themselves without medical insurance coverage in Gallup’s 2013 survey; a follow-up study fixed the percentage at tantalizing close to half that, or 12.4.

The sharply lower number of uninsured this year shoved Arkansas far down the index of states. Less than two years ago only Texas had a larger share (27 percent) of residents with no health coverage. At 24 percent in 2014 it retains its dismal distinction.

Within minutes, Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration fired out a press release celebrating the dramatic increase in covered individuals and families in Arkansas, attributing the cut to the 2013 expansion of Medicaid and the creation of the Private Option insurance program. The money came from the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

“Even though not everyone was happy with the circumstances surrounding the Affordable Care Act in our state, we showed that we could find a bipartisan path to make the best of the situation and help our people,” Mr. Beebe volunteered.

Bipartisan in fact it was. In fact not everyone was happy with the “circumstances” surrounding enactment of the Private Option. In fact, some Republican members of the General Assembly remain at odds with other members over its creation and continued funding; and in fact have announced they will try again to scuttle the program.

The new numbers, and the tens of millions of dollars in relief they represent to hospitals and other health care providers in Arkansas, coupled with the tens of millions of dollars in tax cuts that were financed by projected savings to the state Medicaid program, make eliminating the Private Option appear increasingly improbable. And increasingly unlikely that the next Congress, regardless of its partisan composition, will repeal Obamacare.

Interesting: second only to Arkansas in its drop in uninsured was Kentucky, where the previous 20.4 percentage fell to 11.9. What both states have in common, in addition to expanding their Medicaid programs under Obamacare, is barn-burner races for the U.S. Senate. And Republican nominees who are resolutely opposed to Obamacare.

• • •

The schism over Obamacare in the General Assembly’s Republican majorities is reflected, more or less, in the profound division that afflicts GOP delegates in Washington. Consider the days before the August recess: it turns out that Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has more influence in the House of Representatives than does its Republican Speaker, John Boehner. It was Cruz who scuttled, almost certainly for the balance of this Congress, an immigration reform bill backed by the GOP leadership, strong-arming wavering House conservatives. It was yet another humiliation for Boehner, nobody’s idea of a liberal but a man who would prefer getting something done, and whose principal legislative objectives are serially stymied by his caucus’s Tea Party faction.

So it isn’t strictly fiscal policy that animates the congressional hard right, though federal spending remains a priority. Except, even then, Republicans disagree on how much to spend on what. As the Senate scrambled toward recess on the evening of July 31 a press release from Sen. John Boozman arrived in my e-mail. “Boozman Denies Blank Check for Border Crisis” it was headlined, explaining the Arkansas Republican’s vote against the White House request for additional money to deal with the influx of Latino children at our southern border. Twenty-four minutes later a second press release arrived, this one proclaiming “Boozman Votes for VA Reform Bill.” It was legislation denounced minutes earlier by some of his fellow GOP senators as “a blank check.”

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