'Private Option' Bill Fails in Arkansas House, 70-27

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 4:00 pm  

Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, says he remains opposed to the private option as a policy but doesn't see the need to spur a budget showdown over the vote.

The Arkansas House failed Tuesday to renew the state's compromise Medicaid expansion plan, leaving in limbo the future of a program heralded as a model for Republican-leaning states to implement the federal health overhaul.

The House voted 70-27 to reauthorize funding for the "private option," falling five votes shy of the 75 needed in the 100-member chamber to continue the program. Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents. The program was approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health law.

House Speaker Davy Carter, a supporter of the private option, said representatives would take up the bill again Wednesday and each day of the session after that until it passes. Carter said he's not willing to negotiate further changes to the program.

"I would ask what the plan is for these small minority of members who want to hold everything up," Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters after the vote.

Arkansas was the first state given federal approval to use Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the newly eligible under the health law. More than 87,000 people in Arkansas have been enrolled in the program, and several other states are pursuing or exploring similar plans.

Supporters of the law urged colleagues to not drop the program less than a year after its adoption, saying it's already proven to be a success.

"Let's see if this experiment we voted to try works," said Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, who helped craft the compromise expansion law last year.

A chief opponent of the law, however, said the vote would give the state a chance to show its opposition to the law that Republicans have regularly derided as "Obamacare." Republicans, who control the Legislature, have made major gains in the state over the past two elections by running against the president's health care law.

"Is Arkansas going to be an enabler for Obamacare and the Washington, D.C. interests who seek to impose their will upon us?" House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said before the vote. "Or, are we going to hold the line on behalf of the people of Arkansas in opposition to this dreadful law?"

Five of the "no" votes in the House came from lawmakers who backed funding the private option last year. One of them, Rep. Allen Kerr, said he didn't believe the program was being implemented as promised.

"I think the fundamental process is extremely flawed and we need to back up and retool," Kerr, R-Little Rock, said. "The way it stands today, there's no way I'm going to vote to fund it."

The legislation failed in the House even as its prospects improved in the state Senate.



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