Columns » Ernest Dumas

God, Jason Rapert and Obamacare


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When someone lamented the starvation of millions in the Ukraine, Joseph Stalin is supposed to have observed that "one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is only a statistic."

Even if you're talking about the legislature, there should be a better social psychologist than the butcher of Moscow, but Stalin's point is an apt one. We may find one person's hardships compelling, but our compassion tends to dissolve in the face of an abstraction like "50 million."

I mention Stalin's remark in the service of a story: How Arkansas legislators implemented the central feature of Obamacare, the health-insurance law that most of them had sworn to destroy.

The legislature's huge vote — 28-7 in the Senate and 77-19 in the House — to provide government-paid health insurance for 250,000 low-income working adults and implement a law that people in Arkansas are supposed to loathe is the most shocking turnaround in modern Arkansas history. Gov. Dale Bumpers corralled three-fourths of both legislative houses in 1971 for the only increase in the personal income tax in history (unless you count Mike Huckabee's temporary surtax in 2003), but all except four of the 135 lawmakers belonged to Bumpers's party.

Here we have Republicans controlling both houses of the legislature and most of them are there at least partly because they denounced Obamacare and vowed to use any chance to stop it.

Except for a few ideas for slowing medical inflation, the Affordable Care Act has a single purpose, to provide insurance to the 50 million Americans — 504,2000 of them in Arkansas — who don't have it, principally because they can't afford it or they are denied it by insurance companies.

The Republican case was that it was more Big Government, and it seemed that at least half the country was with them. That 50 million and Arkansas's 504,2000 might be down and out but they were part of Mitt Romney's famous 47 percent who were takers, slackers and whiners.

Across the South and Midwest, where Republicans were in control, they took advantage of the one opening the U.S. Supreme Court gave them for disrupting Obamacare. That was to deny health insurance to a large group of Americans who were eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor and disabled. Only the Arkansas legislature didn't oblige, although one or two other Republican legislatures may follow. Forty-two of the 72 Republican lawmakers and all the Democrats voted for it.

Governor Beebe gets credit for his deft hand, patience and occasional sellout on outrageous Republican bills, and credit must go also to community hospitals, doctors and business groups that pleaded that the state not reject a big economic stimulus.

But there was another element, and this is where the teaser about Joe Stalin comes in. The governor's office, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the Arkansas Community Institute found faces to humanize those big impersonal numbers. They were pivotal in reaching the three-fourths threshold in both houses.

Faye Graham of North Little Rock was one of them. Graham, 54, is the only person in three generations of her cancer-prone family to have survived it, and she is still battling. A teacher and educational consultant who reared four children and saw them through Yale and Wellesley, she has at times been homeless and dependent on her children and friends. She can't get a full-time job but she earns about $16,000 a year teaching a class at Pulaski Technical College and tutoring adult illiterates and ACT test takers. She lost the insurance that paid for her treatment and scans and all that is available is the temporary Obamacare plan for people with pre-existing conditions. The premiums would be $15,000 a year and it would cover only 80 percent of costs if she could afford it.

Graham spoke at a Capitol rally and legislative hearings, and several Republican legislators found Graham and her story compelling. Gracious, articulate and witty, she didn't fit the taker and whiner model. She grew up in a Republican family and described most of her life as very comfortable, although misfortune and homelessness have made her a liberal Democrat.

One who took an interest was Sen. Jason Rapert, the conservative firebrand whose attacks on Obamacare and the Muslim-loving president made national news. Rapert called the Cancer Society and other groups he thought would help her. But when she described her circumstances they said she didn't qualify. She asked them to call Rapert and say they couldn't help.

Rapert had not voted for the Medicaid implementation but he promised to vote for the critical appropriation bill and also to round up the last votes needed from hard-line Republicans.

Graham's own representative, Jane English, would not talk to her and voted with a clear conscience against the bill that would give her succor.

But she praises several Republicans for their charity and compassion, mainly Rapert, with whom she disagrees on just about everything but for whom she will offer unrestrained encomiums.

"He is not the monster they make him out to be," Graham said. "I truly think God put Jason Rapert there to get this done."


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