Arkansas lawmakers advance plan to keep state's compromise Medicaid expansion alive

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to keep Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion structure through 2016 advanced to a Senate vote Wednesday, as lawmakers rejected a bid to abolish the program by this year's end.

The Senate Public Health Committee endorsed legislation that would create a task force to look into alternatives to the current "private option," while the Joint Budget Committee passed the funding bill that would reauthorize the program for another year.

The Senate was expected to vote on both measures on Thursday.

Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. Hutchinson, a Republican sworn in earlier this month, last week called on lawmakers to keep the program through the end of 2016 while a task force looks at longer-term options.

"There is increasing momentum as we seek to reform Medicaid in a way that works best for our state and is affordable," Hutchinson said in a statement after the votes. "It is gratifying to see us come together on this for the people of Arkansas. We are on the right path."

Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who sponsored the task force legislation, called the approach a "reasonable" attempt to balance the arguments of those supporting and opposing the private option.

"It removes us from a crisis legislatively, from a situation none of us want to get to where we get in a stalemate," Hendren told the panel before it approved the task force on a 6-1 vote.

Crafted two years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, the private option has sharply divided Republicans who control the Legislature. That split was again on display Wednesday, when a competing proposal by a group of GOP lawmakers to end the program on Dec. 31 failed before the panel on a 3-3 vote.

"It's still bad policy, the way it's set up today. If it were great policy, we wouldn't have any controversy," Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, who presented the measure to the committee. "We'll continue to work for that repeal."

Hutchinson's plan would keep the current private option approach in place while the federal government pays the full cost. If the state keeps the private option or some other form of Medicaid expansion after next year, it would be required to pay 5 percent of the expansion's cost in 2017 and 10 percent by 2020. The estimated cost to the state when it begins paying for 10 percent is nearly $222 million.

Under Hendren's bill, the task force would be made up of 16 lawmakers and required to issue its recommendations by the end of the year.

The Joint Budget Committee advanced the Medicaid appropriation bill, which reauthorizes the private option through June 30, 2016, and would need three-fourths support in the House and Senate. Lawmakers barely cleared that hurdle last year.

If reauthorized, the program would face another vote about its future next year, since Arkansas' constitution requires the state to budget on an annual basis.

Senate President Jonathan Dismang, an architect of the private option, said he believed they could get the 27 votes needed to continue the program. At least three private option opponents, including Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Cecile Bledsoe R-Rogers, said they planned to vote for the reauthorization and task force measures.

"Especially with the task force, there's reassurance by the members that they'll be able to have input and influence on how we move forward not just with the private option but the Medicaid program in general," Dismang, R-Beebe, said.


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