LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A candid conversation on health care unfolded Monday night between two former Arkansas governors.
Mike Beebe and Mike Huckabee joined Dr. Joe Thompson, the president of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI), on stage at the Statehouse Convention Center to celebrate the policy center’s 20th anniversary.
The state’s four most recent governors were in the room. Gov. Asa Hutchinson introduced the 44th and 45th governors as the 43rd, Jim Guy Tucker, was among the crowd of politicos and health experts from across the state.
“I’m gonna be listening to every word you say,” Hutchinson told them.
The former governors are no strangers. When Huckabee was governor, Beebe was serving in the Arkansas Senate leadership.
The Republican and Democrat share more similarities than just their names. Neither thought they would be a health care governor.
However, Huckabee’s legacy includes ARKids First, of which Beebe was the chief Senate sponsor.
“It was hard for someone to argue that the people who were working, working hard, that their kids shouldn’t have some access to affordable health care,” Huckabee said. “That if they just would quit their jobs and not work, they could have had a platinum-level Medicaid program.”
One of Beebe’s most notable successes in his administration was passing the state’s Medicaid expansion program, then called the private option, in a Republican-controlled legislature.
“I thought you were nuts,” he said to Thompson and his ACHI team. “You think all of this stuff up and then you expect me to do it.”
“You can’t get three-fourths vote in the House and Senate for motherhood and apple pie, much less Obamacare,” Beebe continued.
The private option continues under Hutchinson as Arkansas Works. Thompson, the state’s former surgeon general, asked his former bosses about the program’s controversial new work requirement that has kicked more than 12,000 off their insurance as of Nov. 15.
“While I might have tried to do it a different way, Gov. Hutchinson was faced with a pragmatic situation and needed to continue the program. And I applaud continuing the program. I’ve told him privately, and I’m here to tell you publicly, Gov. Hutchinson’s continuation of the private option under any other name is something we all ought to be very grateful for,” Beebe said to a round of applause. “I think you have to be very careful and make sure that you don’t inadvertently drop worthy people out of the system when they need it, but I will acknowledge sometimes the pragmatic nature of getting 90 percent of a loaf is worth doing. Now let’s go back and make sure we’re fair to the other 10 percent.”
“You just have to make sure that it’s an honest assessment of real work,” Huckabee said. “If people are able-bodied, they can work, there’s a job to be had and this time, when the unemployment level is unbelievably low, that to me is a fair request.”
The former governors also reflected on their relationships in Washington.
Whenever Arkansas needed something in regard to health care, Huckabee, a Republican, said President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, would personally return his phone calls and make sure the Health and Human Services secretary followed through.
“This is a great example of don’t always believe that the partisan nature of politics is as predictable as you would expect it to be,” Huckabee said.
Beebe told the crowd his White House go-to was Vice President Joe Biden.
Huckabee summed up their candor, “The reason we can name names in all of this stuff is because neither of us are ever gonna run for anything again. We don’t give a darn.”
Looking back on the political careers of the two “has-beens” and some of their what might-have-beens, 44 and 45 came to a final agreement.
“Being a governor is the best job in the world,” Huckabee said.
“It is,” Beebe agreed.
ACHI partnered with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service for the event.