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20 Years, Thousands of Kids, One Great Idea: ARKids First Marks 20 Years

Bobby Ampezzan
Arkansas Public Media

The same week that federal Republicans unveiled a proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ARKids First program which they say sent the state’s uninsured rates for children plummeting from 25 percent to less than five percent.

ARKids First offers a Medicaid option for kids from low-income families as well as a second option for kids from moderate-income families.  Two parents with two kids on a household income of less than $51,273 would be eligible for ARKids B, while a single parent with one child and an income of less than $22,748 would be eligible for the Medicaid option.  The program is not often referred to as Medicaid but simply as ARKids First.

Ray Hanley, who was Medicaid director when ARKids was established in 1997, said the program has not only benefited pediatric patients but the entire state.

“It has helped shore up the entire medical infrastructure. The hospitals are much stronger.  We haven’t had a hospital close in years.  People have relationships with physicians, and they can get their prescriptions filled,” said Hanley, who counted the ARKids First program as among his proudest accomplishments during the 16 years he served as Medicaid director.

While it’s not yet clear what impact, if any, a repeal of the Affordable Care Act being sought by federal Republicans and the Trump Administration would have on ARKids First, the program’s supporters say they are concerned.

“We hope the ARKids program as we know it today continues to exist,” said Marquita Little, health policy director with Arkansas Advocates. She once benefited from the program herself.  

“That every child who is eligible can get that coverage.  Obviously there have been some federal proposals put on the table to not only repeal the ACA but actually go much further by reducing Medicaid funding.”

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Amy Rossi, former Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families director, is credited with making the first approach to then-Governor Mike Huckabee about a plan to cover more kids. Some of her colleagues doubted the move, she remembers, "but if you don't have a certain level of gutsiness, advocacy isn't the place for you."

“The Medicaid program is extremely vital to this state and what we are able to provide in health services for all Arkansans.  So I don’t want to see the Medicaid program gunned down, because it’s a political expediency of somebody’s claim when they really didn’t even understand what this program has done or how much children and their families have benefited from it,” said Amy Rossi, the former Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Director who was credited with making the first approach to then-Gov. Mike Huckabee with a proposal to stop thinking in terms of cuts and do the opposite: expand coverage to more kids.

At a recent panel discussion at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Creshelle Nash with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said she is also watching the proposed federal changes with some concern.

“Everybody is scrambling right now and trying to figure out what’s going on.  But as long as we keep the end game in mind, and the end game is taking care of people and investing in people, and look at it from that perspective, then I think we can take some steps to where we need to be,” she said.

The ARKids First legislation was signed on March 10, 1997 by Huckabee.  He sat at a kids’ table at a day care surrounded by little ones and, to the surprise of many, put his pen away and asked them if he could borrow a crayon to sign the bill.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, speaks with Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, at a panel discussion marking the 20th anniversary of ARKids First.

Ann Kenda joined Arkansas Public Media in January 2017 from Sudbury, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Syracuse University and previously worked in public radio, commercial radio and newspaper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She focuses on health, justice, education and energy as part of the Arkansas Public Media team. Her stories can be found on the airwaves, and social media.
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