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story.lead_photo.caption A map showing the location of House District 53

The primary race for state House District 53 in northeast Arkansas will showcase policy differences that have divided the Republican Party since it overtook the Legislature over the past few election cycles.

The pair of Jonesboro Republicans in the race disagree on the state's version of Medicaid expansion and proposed "tort reform" efforts.

The challenger, Dr. Cole Peck, an emergency and urgent care doctor, said he's supportive of a proposed constitutional amendment that would cap attorneys fees, limit punitive and noneconomic damages in civil lawsuits, and give the Legislature rule-making approval over the Arkansas Supreme Court.

"I think frivolous lawsuits add a cost to business," said Peck, who has been sued twice (both were dismissed). "I think we'd see some cost saving [if the amendment passes]. I also think we'd see increased access to health care."

The incumbent, Rep. Dan Sullivan, a retired teacher, principal and health care executive, said he opposes the measure because he believes in the right to a jury trial. He alluded to the ongoing scandal that has entangled several former lawmakers who have admitted or been accused of taking kickbacks to direct state money to certain entities.

"It's easier to buy a Legislature than it is to buy a jury," he said.

House District 53 includes part of Jonesboro and the rural, eastern portion of Craighead County. No Democrat filed to seek the seat, so the winner of the May 22 primary will be the next District 53 representative.

Sullivan, 68, won the seat in 2014, unseating then-Rep. Homer Lenderman, D-Brookland. Sullivan originally ran because of Lenderman's votes on abortion legislation and because he thought his experience in the health care industry equipped him to address some of the waste in the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Those two issues remain core reasons for seeking re-election, Sullivan said.

Peck, 42, said he felt compelled to run after talking with people who didn't feel they were well-represented.

"People are frustrated," he said. "They feel like people aren't listening to them, especially when it comes to health care."

Peck joked that his only run for public office was during Boys State in high school. Since announcing his campaign, he's knocked on numerous doors and been on the receiving end of a pit bull's bite.

"[The owner] said she'd vote for me though," Peck quipped.

Sullivan has been one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who have voted against the Department of Human Services' budget in recent years because of opposition to Arkansas Works -- the state's version of Medicaid expansion. The program uses Medicaid dollars to buy private health insurance for adults with incomes of up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

The program has ballooned to a level that's unmanageable, Sullivan said. He supports the federal waiver that the state recently attained to require able-bodied recipients to volunteer, work or seek job training to remain eligible for the benefit, but even those requirements will be near impossible to track, according to Sullivan.

"We're paying insurance companies for ghosts," he said.

He supports a "fee-for-service" proposal from state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, that would move people from Arkansas Works to traditional Medicaid. King introduced the bill in the last legislative session, but it failed to make it out of committee. Supporters of that legislation have said it would be more efficient and reduce costs to the state.

Arkansas will pay 6 percent of the cost of Arkansas Works this year, 7 percent next year and 10 percent in 2020 with the federal government covering the rest of the tab under federal law. The state estimates its share of the cost at $135 million in fiscal 2019, which starts July 1, and the federal government's share at $1.95 billion.

Peck sharply criticized the Medicaid expansion, sometimes known as Obamacare, saying he hopes the law is overhauled at the federal level, but he said Arkansas' version of Medicaid expansion has been a good way to make the best of the federal law.

Peck, who practices medicine in Arkansas and Missouri, said the climate is much more favorable for doctors and patients in the Natural State compared with Missouri, which hasn't expanded Medicaid.

"Until they get rid of Obamacare, the state has to try and make it better than what it is," Peck said.

He also said it's dangerous to simply eliminate the program.

"What's going to happen to all those people?" he said. "They don't just magically not need health care anymore."

Both candidates said they are "pro-life."

Sullivan opposes abortion, except in cases of rape or incest and when the mother's life is in danger.

Peck opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He said cases in which a mother's life is at risk are rare, and that "you've got to save the mom because without the mom the baby's not going to make it."

Both candidates gave their full support to the Craighead County Eastern District Courthouse. The county is one of 10 in Arkansas with two judicial districts. The Eastern District Courthouse has come under fire in recent years, and residents feared it would close.

Peck has reported raising $53,801 and spending $32,185.03. Sullivan has reported $35,059 in contributions and $21,582.16 in expenses.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson hasn't gotten involved in the race, but that could change, according to his chief political strategist, Jon Gilmore.

The Republican governor in recent years has endorsed or donated to some Republicans in primary races, particularly when their opponents oppose Arkansas Works.

"The governor has not endorsed a candidate in this race," Gilmore said. "His plan is to be neutral, but this could change as Election Day draws closer."

State representatives serve two-year terms. Each currently receives an annual salary of $40,188 in addition to per diem and mileage to attend legislative sessions and meetings.

Photo by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Cole Peck
Photo by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Rep. Dan Sullivan

Metro on 04/30/2018

Print Headline: Medicaid, tort reform top issues in District 53 race

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