Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — The national debate over the federal health care law hits the state Capitol this week as a House committee takes up legislation to block implementation of a universal mandate in Arkansas.

On Tuesday, the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee is scheduled to consider House Bill 1053, which would prohibit the federal government from requiring Arkansans to enroll in a health care insurance program. 

Debate on the bill by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, will come less than a week after the newly Republican-controlled U.S. House voted to repeal the massive health care overhaul law that Congress approved and President Obama signed into law just last year.

All four members of Arkansas’ U.S. House delegation — three freshman Republicans and Democrat Mike Ross — supported repeal in a vote that was seen as largely symbolic since Democrats still control the Senate.

But with Meeks’ bill, Arkansas joins a host of states in attempting to chip away at the federal law amid larger efforts to overturn it altogether.

Also this week, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider a bill to bar indigent defendants from hiring lawyers at state expense. The legislation grew out of the case of the man accused of killing one soldier and wounding another outside a west Little Rock military recruiting station. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the state had to pay for private defense lawyers.  

Meeks’ so-called Health Care Freedom Act also would shield Arkansans from federal penalties for refusing to buy health insurance.

Meeks said last week he expects to have legal experts on health care reform testify at the meeting. 

"Because of the interest in this bill, I’m sure there will be a lot of questions about the legal standing of this bill," as well as the constitutionality of the federal law, he said.

He declined to say who would testify for his bill. 

Meeks said Arkansans don’t want to be forced to purchase health insurance, and he believes the 10th Amendment allows state law to supersede federal law. The amendment grants to states sovereignty over all powers not specifically granted to the federal government.

Since Obama signed the health care reforms into law in March, voters in three states — Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma — have approved state constitutional amendments that prohibit enforcement of the individual mandate. Voters in Colorado defeated such a measure in November.

Legislatures in several states, including Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana and Virginia, have passed laws with similar language. The legislatures in those states either have Republican majorities or Republicans have made significant gains in recent years.

In Arkansas, Republicans gained 23 legislative seats in the November general election, raising their numbers from 28 to 44 in the 100-member House and from eight to 15 in the 35-member Senate.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, has declined to join several other states in suing the federal government over the health care law, saying the litigation was political and unlikely to succeed.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who raised concerns last year about what the health care reforms would cost the state, has said Arkansas would comply with the federal law. 

Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said last week that the governor would not support Meeks’ bill. 

"Taking state action before the law can be argued in federal court is not something we see as productive," DeCample said, adding HB 1053 deals only with whether the state can legally block the federal mandate.

"This bill ... is not about the contents of the health care plan," he said.

DeCample said the state risks being sued if it opts out of the federal program, and that any change in the law as a result of the current legislation would affect Arkansas along with other states.

If the Legislature passes HB 1053, DeCample "and the federal court decides that (health care reform) is proper, we’re opening our state up to legal action and some cost to our taxpayers."

Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a Republican, said during his campaign that he would sue the federal government on his own challenging the health care law if the governor and attorney general failed to do so. 

After a meeting with McDaniel last month, Darr said he would encourage the Legislature to support HB 1053 and watch Congress to see whether the federal law is repealed or significantly altered.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee likely will consider House Bill 1004 on Thursday, said sponsoring Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock.

The bill would prohibit poor defendants from hiring a private attorney and then charging the state’s Public Defender Commission for the cost

Last year, the family of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad hired an attorney to defend him against capital murder and other charges in the 2009 shooting at a west Little Rock recruiting center that killed Pvt. William Long of Conway and wounded a second soldier. Muhammad’s family asked the state to pick up the defense tab.

The state challenged the request, and Arkansas’ highest court eventually ruled that Arkansas law granting state-funded public defenders for people who cannot afford them does not address who gets to pick the lawyer.

"(HB 1004) just makes it plain that payment of retaining counsel would not come from the Public Defender Commission," Edwards said.

He said the additional expense could cripple the commission’s finances. In November, the commission asked the Legislature for an additional $500,000 to help cover the attorneys fees of defendants who have private lawyers.

Commission Director Didi Sallings said the additional revenues would cover the cost of Muhammad’s attorney as well as those of seven other defendants who have requested assistance since the state Supreme Court ruling. Lawmakers granted the request as a supplement appropriation for the commission’s current budget.