Arkansas governor says special session likely needed to determine Medicaid plan's future

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — A special session will likely be needed to take up the future of Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday, warning that he doesn't want the new program to mimic what's already in place.

The Republican governor told reporters that he'd prefer the recommendations of a task force looking at alternatives for covering those on the "private option" be considered in a special session, rather than when the Legislature returns next year to take up the budget.

"I think the public expects a special session that will be devoted to this issue because it's a very large challenge for us and we've got to build the consensus for it," Hutchinson said in his office.

Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. The program was crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the federal health law. Lawmakers voted this year to continue the program another year, while a 16-member legislative task force looks at alternatives for covering the more than 200,000 people on the program.

While it's possible the task force could recommend an expansion identical to the private option, Hutchinson said "that's probably the only thing that's off the table."

"I don't think anybody who expects that this was the end to the private option wants it to be tweaked in minor ways and relabeled," Hutchinson said. "That's not going to fly with the Arkansas voters and that's not my expectation. I think this is going to be a total refiguring of it in an Arkansas way with compassion, fiscal prudence and then also one that's innovative."

The private option has sharply divided Republicans, who control the Legislature and have made gains in the state primarily by running against the federal health law that helped spawn it. Arkansas was the first state given approval for such a hybrid plan for expanding coverage.

Hutchinson had urged lawmakers to keep the program alive through the end of 2016, when the state is required to pay for part of the expansion — 5 percent in 2017, and 10 percent by 2020. The task force is required to issue its recommendations later this year. The 2016 legislative session is scheduled to begin in February.

Hutchinson said creating the task force gives hospitals — which have credited the private option with cutting costs of caring for those without insurance — and those on the program more certainty and time to prepare for any changes.

"They can handle change, as long as there's sufficient lead time and they're a part of that and they understand what the future is so they can make the proper adjustments," Hutchinson said.


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