Joe Thompson: Expanding Medicaid Will Help Arkansas Catch Up

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 2:04 pm  

Surgeon General Joe Thompson, seen in this file photo, says expanding Medicaid in Arkansas will give Arkansas a chance to help its poorest citizens and save money for its health care system. (Photo by Mike Pirnique)

LITTLE ROCK - Expanding Medicaid's eligibility under the federal health care law would help Arkansas catch up with richer states that have been offering more through the program, the state's surgeon general said Tuesday.

Surgeon General Joe Thompson touted the proposed expansion, which would add 250,000 people to the state's Medicaid rolls, as a way to help the state's poorest citizens and save Arkansas money over time.

"It's a one-time opportunity to strive for complete coverage and catch up to the richer states," Thompson said in a speech at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. "It is not fair that a working mom in Arkansas could be disadvantaged in the same way that if she were in Maine, she'd be advantaged. That is a leveling of the playing field."

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, supports expanding Medicaid but needs the support of three-fourths of the House and Senate next year to make it happen. Republicans, who control the Legislature next year, have generally opposed the expansion but have said they're open to a compromise in exchange for reforms to the state's Medicaid program.

Beebe told reporters earlier Tuesday that he didn't expect any activity on the expansion until halfway through the session, which begins in January. Beebe has said the savings projected from a Medicaid expansion could prevent cuts the state Department of Human Services has proposed to the program next year.

Under the federal law, the federal government agreed to pay the full tab for the Medicaid expansion when it begins in 2014. After three years, states must pay a gradually increasing share that tops out at 10 percent of the cost. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June upholding the federal overhaul gave states the right to opt out of the expansion. DHS estimated the state would save $44 million next year if it expanded Medicaid.

Beebe supported the expansion after federal officials said the state had the ability to drop the expanded coverage later, but Thompson said he believed doing so would be difficult.

Thompson wouldn't rule out support for drug-testing Medicaid recipients, an idea floated by some GOP lawmakers as a reform in a potential compromise, but questioned the motivation behind it.

"If the issue on drug testing is to identify someone with a problem, get them into care and get them treatment so they can no longer have an issue, then I think that is something that is a potential benefit," he said. "If the issue is to be punitive and say because you have a problem therefore you don't get a benefit, that to me seems to be short sighted."

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