Arkansas House Again Votes Down Private Option

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 2:18 pm  

House Speaker Davy Carter has said the House will keep voting on the private option reauthorization until it passes.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The future of Arkansas' compromise plan to expand Medicaid by purchasing private insurance for the poor remained in jeopardy Wednesday, after legislation to continue the nationally-watched program failed for a second day in the state House.

The House voted 68-27 to reauthorize funding for the "private option," falling seven votes shy of the 75 needed to continue the program. It's the second time the legislation has failed in the House, where the measure fell five votes shy on Tuesday with the same number of members voting against it.

Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. The program was approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health law.

Arkansas was the first state given federal approval for such a program, touted as a way to implement the health care law in a Republican-leaning state. More than 87,000 people in Arkansas have been enrolled in the program, and several other states are pursuing or exploring similar plans.

The plan sharply divided Republicans, who control the Legislature and have made gains in the past two elections in Arkansas by running against the federal health law.

The insurance program, however, would end immediately under the legislation if the federal government didn't approve the proposal to cap enrollment by June 30. Republicans calling for the legislation said it would still give lawmakers a chance to revisit the program's future at next year's session.

House Speaker Davy Carter vowed to hold votes every day on the measure until it passes, while the Senate planned to vote on an identical version of the funding bill Thursday. Carter accused opponents of using the budget process to try and kill a program a majority of lawmakers support.

"If there was a vote on the House floor to end the private option, it would fail miserably," Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters. "So you can't achieve that result by holding the budget process hostage. We're not going to let that happen. In reality, that's what we're being asked to do."

Opponents on Wednesday renewed a push to gradually phase out the program. The proposal unveiled Wednesday is preventing the state from enrolling anyone else in the private option starting July 1 and calls for ending the program March 1, 2015.

"Let's put a pause on this program, let's protect those who are in it. Let's not penalize them because of the changing environment they had no control over," said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. "Then, let's let the voters have their voices heard in November."

Supporters of the program dismissed that proposal, saying calling for the private option's eventual dismantling wasn't a good faith effort at compromise.

"That's what we're trying to keep from doing. I don't know how ending it is any compromise," Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters.



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