LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas House and Senate leaders began counting votes Tuesday on a pair of bills aimed to reducing premium hikes set to hit thousands of teachers and public school employees this fall, as they tried to gauge whether there's support to address the matter in a special session.
The top lawmakers on a task force formed to look at the teacher health insurance program began circulating the measures to House and Senate members and said they hoped to know in the next couple days whether there's support to pass the proposals. Gov. Mike Beebe has said he wants to see whether there's consensus before calling a special session.
Public school workers, totaling around 47,000 across Arkansas, would face a 35 percent increase in their health insurance premiums if lawmakers don't take action before the next school year starts in August, state officials have said.
"We've got strong support in the Senate," said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who chairs the task force. "People understand that tough times demand hard choices."
Hendren said he hoped to know as soon as late Tuesday night whether there's support in the 35-member Senate for the measures. Rep. Harold Copenhaver, the panel's vice chairman, said he hoped to know whether there's support in the 100-member House by the end of this week or early next week.
The legislation largely mirrors recommendations issued by the task force. It includes dropping part-time employees from plans and excluding spouses from coverage if they can receive insurance from their own work. It also includes proposals to require verifying the eligibility of dependents on teacher insurance policies and to allow the state to scale back or eliminate coverage for weight loss surgery.
Copenhaver said he believes lawmakers generally agree a session is needed to address the premium increases.
"The alternative is not the direction we want to go in," said Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro. "We've got to do something."
Beebe's office said the governor was satisfied with the legislation, but wanted to see how much support they have before deciding to call a special session.
"He has no problem with it, so it is now about making sure the votes are there," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.
If the governor calls lawmakers back to the Capitol, it'll be the second special session the Legislature has held over the past year to address the teacher insurance program. Beebe signed into law measures approved during a special session in October aimed at limiting premium hikes, including setting aside $43 million from the surplus and redirecting state money in future years.
The governor has also left open the possibility of including other matters, such as expanding broadband access for schools and addressing prison overcrowding, if he calls a special session.
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