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Ark. Republicans spar with Planned Parenthood over healthcare guides 

With implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act's major provisions gearing up in Arkansas, the potential involvement of Planned Parenthood is stirring controversy among Republican lawmakers.

The ACA will make subsidized health insurance available to hundreds of thousands of Arkansans starting in January, with enrollment beginning in October. As part of the law, 642 outreach workers, known as "guides," will work in every county in the state to inform people that they're eligible for coverage and help them navigate the process of enrollment.

The Arkansas Insurance Department (AID) is contracting with various entities in the state — ranging from state agencies to private companies to local community organizations — to hire the guides (at around $12 an hour). Thirty groups applied and were certified by the Office of State Procurement as qualified vendors to provide the guides, including Planned Parenthood.

Among the many health services that Planned Parenthood provides is abortion, and Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock) and Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) — who have been working closely with state health officials on implementation of the "private option" for Medicaid expansion passed last April — objected to contracting with the non-profit as a vendor for the guides.

"Any honest person has to acknowledge the obvious controversy that comes with an organization like that," Sanders said. In practice, the guides — who will be trained and licensed by AID, the Department of Higher Education, and the Association of Two-Year Colleges — are restricted to the task of helping eligible people sign up for insurance. Guides would not be funded to offer Planned Parenthood's regular healthcare services, just as guides hired by the Central Arkansas Library (a vendor that was awarded a contract without controversy) will not be shelving books. Nevertheless, Sanders said, "I see their involvement as completely unnecessary. It's a needless injection of controversy."

Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford decided to delay the contract for Planned Parenthood, even as he went forward with the other groups (of the 30 applicants, 23 have been awarded contracts; three have pending contracts; and three have dropped out). Bradford said that he wanted time to talk to Planned Parenthood and "make sure there was a clear scope of work," in the hopes of alleviating Republican concerns and establishing that the guide program had nothing to do with abortion.

In a phone interview last week, he said, "I don't foresee any problem ... I think we're going to get something worked out with them and we'll go through the process. It will be at a later time." Bradford acknowledged that the "emotion involved" explained the extra scrutiny for Planned Parenthood and the additional effort to "clearly define the scope of work."

Funding for 542 of the guides comes fully from a federal grant, while 100 will be funded through the Arkansas Department of Human Services, with the cost split between the state and the feds. The appropriation has already been approved, but it could theoretically be blocked by the Legislative Council in the interim between sessions.

"The issue is, do they have a population that needs to be served?" Bradford said of Planned Parenthood. "In my viewpoint they do. We need to have a clearer definition so we don't have any trouble from conservatives that they think it has anything whatsoever in any way to do with the abortion issue." Explaining the decision to hold off on a contract, Bradford said, "I'm worried that it will not be understood appropriately. Once it's made clear I can't imagine anybody having a problem with it."

However, in response to Bradford's comments — reported on the Times' Arkansas Blog — Republican lawmakers took to social media to object. Rep. David Meeks (R-Conway) tweeted that a contract with Planned Parenthood would be "unacceptable" and "I will continue to oppose ANY taxpayer funds going to Planned Parenthood." Others followed suit: Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) tweeted "Hiring 'navigators' and Planned Parenthood to help spend more of our Grandkid's money. #Obamacare #selfish" and Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) tweeted, "I have advised Ins. Comm. Bradford that if he pushes for funding of Planned Parenthood as navigators — all momentum will stop" and "I am sick and tired of taxpayer dollars being funneled to the number one abortion provider in our nation. It is wrong."

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