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The state of our state

Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2013, at 2:01 PM

This week, the members of the 89th Arkansas General Assembly convened, bringing many new faces to the State Capitol. While leadership and membership are much different than past sessions, these coming months will still be filled with weighty challenges, solemn responsibilities and unique opportunities.

I delivered my State of the State address as the session began. I reiterated that my top priorities remain education and economic development, and I am pleased that we've made many accomplishments in both areas. We will continue making the improvements to our schools that have dramatically improved our national ranking. We remain focused on bringing new jobs and investment to Arkansas, and I plan to ask for the Legislature's help to bring in one of the biggest projects our State has ever seen. I also am proposing legislation that will put a mechanism in place to make the final cut in the sales tax on groceries when funding becomes available.

My proposed balanced budget covers a wide range of important state services, but it's clear that Medicaid will be the highest-profile issue this session. Arkansas faces a significant Medicaid shortfall. My proposed budget includes new, ongoing revenue and one-time surplus funds to help address the shortfall, but it's not going to be enough to completely bridge the gap.

The vast majority of Arkansans who currently receive Medicaid services are either elderly nursing-home residents, disabled adults or children insured by ARKids First. Any potential cuts will adversely affect real people, fellow Arkansans who depend on those services that we provide. There may still be tough choices ahead.

Separate from these Arkansans who already receive Medicaid, we have an opportunity this session to offer low-income, working Arkansans an option for health insurance through Medicaid. The federal government will cover the entire cost of insuring these Arkansans for three years, beginning in 2014. The State share of their insurance will reach 10 percent in 2020. However, other savings and the hundreds of millions of federal dollars added to our economy every year are expected to minimize the impact on our general-revenue budget.

If we have no insurance options available for our low-income workers, while more and more other states add those options through expanding Medicaid, it will make us less business-friendly in comparison. Also of economic concern are the 40,000 Arkansans employed by hospitals in our State, and the tens of thousands more who work in other areas of health care. Many of these workers are seeing their hospitals struggle under increased financial pressure. Arkansans without insurance coverage still seek care, often in emergency rooms. The cost of uncompensated care is eventually passed along to insured Arkansans. A 2009 study found that Arkansas families with health insurance pay an estimated $1,500 in their premiums every year to treat the uninsured.

Expanded Medicaid can reduce uncompensated care and relieve this hidden tax we all pay. It can give 250,000 Arkansans the chance to lead healthier, more productive lives. It can help keep hospitals open and operational, and it will create additional private-sector health-care jobs. The choice whether we say yes will be left to the General Assembly.

As our legislators address Medicaid and others challenges Arkansas faces, I stand ready to work with them to keep our State on the path of progress. We all stand on the shoulders of the leaders who came before us and we will be writing the history that inspires those who come after. Together, we will continue providing our people opportunities to find prosperity, support and peace of mind.



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