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GOP Senate Primaries, Round Three: Sample vs. Neal

Updated: Apr 13


Jerry Neal (left) and Senator Bill Sample.

Round three of our review of the upcoming Republican primaries for state Senate is here. We’re taking a look at the role of the Obamacare “private” option Medicaid expansion in political debate, given its size and the evident intention of many candidates to make it a central part of their election strategy. Today, let’s take a look at District 14, where incumbent Senator Bill Sample is facing a primary challenge from Jerry Neal.

In a recent interview with the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, Sample and Neal made their differences on the “private” option very clear. Neal told the paper that he opposes Obamacare and the Obamacare PO. Sample, by contrast, has voted repeatedly to implement the Medicaid expansion program and to set up a state Obamacare exchange. If Sample opposes Obamacare, he’s done a poor job of demonstrating his opposition in the legislature.

Here’s what Sample told reporter Caleb Taylor of the Sentinel-Record:

I feel a lot better about the ‘private option’ than I do about ‘Obamacare,’ but I guess my opponent is for ‘Obamacare’…The people in (District 14) want Arkansas controlling their health care.

Sample thinks Neal is for Obamacare because he opposes Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion? This isn’t the first time this argument has surfaced, even in Garland County: recall last month, when I wrote about the creepy looking postcards that were appearing in voters’ mailboxes across Senator Alan Clark’s district. Unfortunately for Sample, as I explained then, the implementation of “private” option Medicaid expansion is a central component of Obamacare, and one that was within the state’s authority to stop. Does Sample really believe that a vote for implementing Obamacare is a vote against Obamacare, as House Speaker Davy Carter has declared?

Sample said something else to the Hot Springs paper that deserves further analysis: specifically, Sample said the PO “allows Arkansas more control over health care spending.” This pro-Obamacare talking point isn’t original to Sample either — it’s being used by other incumbent GOP senators who are facing some primary heat for their votes for the PO. But this view is incorrect: as I outlined earlier this week, every aspect of Medicaid expansion must be approved by the federal government, whether it runs through a “private” option model or not.

Think of it this way: Medicaid is a federal program, paid for with (mostly) federal dollars. In fact, the waiver that Arkansas obtained to pursue the “private” option model is a federal waiver to the federal program. In short, Arkansas can only make changes to the Medicaid program if the federal government allows us to. The only real control Arkansas could have exercised over Medicaid would have been blocking Medicaid expansion. Due in part to Senator Sample’s votes, we failed to do so. Now, we are entirely dependent upon the federal government’s word and wishes. According to Sample’s logic, this represents “more control” for Arkansas. I see it as just the opposite.

In response to Sample’s assertion that the voters support the PO, Neal added:

(Sample) says a majority of voters are for the ‘private option,’ but I don’t know which constituents he’s been talking to…I think the majority of Republican voters in this county are against it.

Survey says — Neal is right, at least on a macro level. This poll from Conduit For Action shows that Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose the “private” option. In fact, only 22% of GOP primary voters support the PO. Other polls have corroborated these findings.

Like Senator Bruce Holland, I’d like to have a crystal ball and be able to tell you who will represent District 14 in the state Senate starting next year. But unfortunately, like Senator Holland, I don’t have one. What I can tell you is that Sample says he has “all the confidence in the world” that he’ll prevail and Neal says he has an “excellent” chance of winning. One of them is right.

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