Arkansas House Panel OKs 'Private Option' Bill

LITTLE ROCK - A proposal to have Arkansas use federal Medicaid funds to subsidize private health insurance for low-income residents won approval from a state House committee on Tuesday, but the plan faced opposition from Republicans as it moved toward a vote in the full chamber.

House Public Health Committee approved the Medicaid "private option" proposal on a voice vote, minutes after the top Republican in the House withdrew his name as a sponsor of the bill and said he would vote against the proposal. Several Republicans on the Democrat-controlled panel said they voted for the measure to advance it to the House floor, but said they had serious reservations about supporting it.

The proposal was a compromise reached between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as an alternative to expanding the state's Medicaid enrollment as called for under the federal health care law. Under the bill, Arkansas would take the federal Medicaid funds it would have received to expand the program and instead use that money to purchase private insurance for 250,000 residents who make up to 138 percent of the poverty line, which amounts to $15,415 per year.

Republican supporters of the bill are pitching the proposal as a conservative alternative to the Medicaid expansion called for under the federal health care law that many GOP lawmakers campaigned against last fall.

"I see a chance for a great opportunity for Arkansas to lead the nation in conservative, market-based health care reform," said Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, the chair of the House Public Health Committee.

Burris, who is sponsoring the proposal in the House, told lawmakers that the plan would allow the state to shrink its Medicaid rolls and provide low-income residents more efficient health care through private insurers.

The House was slated to vote on the proposal Wednesday, and leaders from both parties said they expected the bill to capture the simple majority needed to pass. The Senate has already approved the legislation, but implementation of the program hinges on lawmakers in both chambers approving a separate budget bill authorizing the state to carry out the program. The budget bill requires a three-fourths supermajority in the House and Senate.

The Senate endorsed the "private option" proposal last week on a 24-9 vote - three votes shy of the supermajority needed to pass the budget bill.

In the House, getting to a three-fourths majority is poised to become a battle among Republicans, who hold 51 of the 100 seats in the chamber.

Minority Leader Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetevitlle, has said that the vast majority of his caucus supports the private option proposal.

Republican House Speaker Davy Carter, who supports the proposal, said on Monday he believed there was enough support to pass the private option proposal.

But the House GOP leader, Rep. Bruce Westerman on Tuesday said that he would vote against the private option proposal. He said he was concerned that lawmakers were rushing into a decision that had not been properly vetted.

"The reason I co-signed on to the bill in the first place was to try to work through issues and maybe come up with something right here at the end that would be a little more palatable," he told reporters Tuesday. "I haven't got to that point."

Westerman also said he would most likely table his plans to pursue a competing Medicaid proposal.

Federal officials also still need to sign off on Arkansas' approach to using federal Medicaid dollars made available by President Obama's 2010 health care law. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said the state's plan was consistent with Medicaid's requirements, but in a letter to Gov. Beebe last week stopped short of giving final approval.

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