In Arkansas, A Lose-Lose Proposition for the Pro-Choice Movement?


The Arkansas gubernatorial race features one firmly anti-choice candidate, and one with a vacillating stance on abortion rights.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is one of the last Southern Democratic governors, and due to term limits he is not eligible for reelection. The campaign to replace him is between two politicians who were born and raised in the state, and who are both attempting to appeal Arkansas’s moderate electorate.

Democrat Mike Ross and his Republican opponent, Asa Hutchinson, both easily won their primary elections without significant opposition.

Ross is a traditional Southern Democrat who began his political career as a staffer for former Gov. Bill Clinton. Ross has spent most of his adult life in politics, having served ten years in the Arkansas State Senate and another 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hutchinson is running for governor for a second time, having lost in 2006 to Gov. Beebe.

Hutchinson has had a diverse career in public service and politics, beginning with his appointment as U.S. Attorney by President Reagan. He would lose an election for U.S. Senate and state attorney general before being elected to Congress in 1996. Hutchinson served in Congress from 1997 until 2001.

The gubernatorial campaign has focused on a variety of issues, but one of the critical issues to the campaign is healthcare and how best to expand access to the state’s low income residents.

Arkansas has historically struggled with poverty and poor public health. According to the United Health Foundation, the state ranks 49 in health-care outcomes. This is in large part due to the state having the fourth highest percentage of residents living in poverty. The median household income, over the past decade, has been among the lowest in the nation, and has seen little improvement.

The Private Option

A bipartisan compromise was brokered in the Republican-controlled legislature that created a path for the state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through a private health insurance exchange. Gov. Beebe has been a vocal supporter of the policy that he signed into law, and has advocated that the state continue the program.

Arkansas conservatives have been critical of the policy, and Republican lawmakers faced primaries challenges largely based on their support of the plan. One of the Republican architects of the plan was challenged and defeated in the primaries. The state is currently considering proposed changes to the program, and looking toward Republican governed states for policies to adopt.

The criticism of the private option stem in large part from Republican opposition to the ACA. Both Ross and Hutchinson have said that they oppose the health-care reform law.

Ross has a long legislative record of opposing the ACA. While in Congress he voted against both the House version and on final passage. During the months of negotiations Ross was one of a handful of lawmakers to broker compromise with Democratic leadership to reduce cost of bill by limiting subsidies to the uninsured and doubling exemptions for small businesses.

After the Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, Ross was one of only three Democrats to join with the Republicans in voting to repeal the new health-care law.

“An overwhelming majority of my constituents continue to oppose this healthcare reform law and I believe we should repeal it, start over and listen to the majority of the American people – not the special interests and party leaders in Washington,” Ross said in a press release following voting to repeal the law in January 2011.

“I voted against the federal healthcare law, or the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, four times and I voted to repeal Obamacare 23 times,” Ross says on his campaign website. “But, at the time, I said there were good parts and there were bad parts to Obamacare. I think Arkansas’s Medicaid expansion, which passed with overwhelming Republican support, is one of the good parts.”

“I know further reform in healthcare is needed,” said Hutchinson in a campaign statement. “I look forward to working with our health care professionals and the legislature to determine what changes will be needed in the future. The reforms I will advocate will reflect those needed changes while balancing the need for a stable budget.”

Hutchinson says that he has consistently opposed the ACA and characterized the law as “train-wreck” and a “terrible job killing policy that is fatally flawed.” Hutchinson claims the ACA has caused health insurance premiums for residents of the state “to skyrocket” and has has denied resident the opportunity “to keep their health insurance if they like it.”

In fact, the Arkansas Insurance Department is projecting that insurance policies will see a decrease by 2 percent in premiums for the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, the health insurance exchange created by the ACA.

Like many state that expanded Medicaid under the ACA, Arkansas saw significant increases to access to health care for low-income residents. More than 183,000 residents have received health insurance through the program. According to Gallup polling, the uninsured rate in Arkansas has dropped from 22.5 percent to 12.4 percent.

During a meeting of the Southern Governors Association, incumbent Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) lauded the private option for reducing the number of the state’s uninsured more than any other state in the country since the ACA was fully implemented.

Ross has criticized Hutchinson for being evasive on his position on the state’s private option. Hutchinson has repeatedly said that the way in which the state has decided to deliver healthcare to low-income residents has been badly designed, but has been vague in saying how he would have designed it differently.

Hutchinson, who has said that there is a “debate on whether we’re going to extend insurance coverage for the working poor,” opposes the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. “I would have designed the healthcare plan for Arkansas differently. But as governor, I will inherit the decisions the governor and General Assembly made in the fiscal session.”

“We’ll do the right thing in terms of making the adjustments that are needed to reflect the values of Arkansas and to make sure this program is an incentive for people to work and not an incentive for people not to work,” said Hutchinson at a Delta Grassroots Caucus conference in Little Rock.

Reproductive Rights

Historically, Arkansas politicians have been hostile to reproductive rights, and there is limited access to reproductive health care in the state. There were several legislative attempts in 2013 to restrict reproductive rights in the state. In March, a ban on telemedicine abortions was introduced, and in April the legislature attempted to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

During his campaign announcement, Ross addressed legislative actions to restrict reproductive rights in the state capitol.

“Over the past few months, some misguided politicians have taken over the state legislature and have made divisive issues of the past their top priority instead of working to create jobs, improve education and strengthen the economy. Here lately, it seems the only time Arkansas makes national news is when these divisive politicians succeed at pushing through their attacks on women and families,” said Ross.

Ross would later clarify that he was specifically addressing two pieces of legislation passed by the Arkansas legislature: a ban on abortion after 12 weeks of gestation and ban on abortion after 20 weeks.

The ban on abortion after 12 weeks is one of the most stringent restrictions on abortion in the country. The law was blocked by a federal judge in March, and is currently under litigation. Ross claims that he would have vetoed both bills.

As governor, Hutchinson says that he would have signed both the 12-week and 20-week abortion bans passed by the Arkansas General Assembly.

Ross opposition to restricting reproductive rights is a dramatic change from his legislative record, as over the course of his political career he does not have a history of supporting reproductive rights. During his time in Congress he has received low ratings for his votes on reproductive rights-related issues from organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.

When asked why he now is opposed to restrictions on reproductive rights, Ross told the Arkansas News that his position has not changed. “I am personally opposed to abortion. My position is the same as Gov. Beebe’s – I think from a public policy standpoint it should safe, legal, and rare,” said Ross.

Ross and Hutchinson served in Congress together for one year in 2001 during the 107th Congress, during which time Hutchinson would be appointed by President George W. Bush as director of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Ross received a rating from Planned Parenthood for 50 percent for votes on issues concerning reproductive rights, while Hutchinson received a rating of 0 percent for those same votes.

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