Mike Beebe Warns Against Ending Health Care Program

NORTH LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe warned sheriffs from around the state Tuesday that new funding he has proposed for the prison system could be at risk if lawmakers halt the compromise Medicaid expansion approved last year.

Facing an increasingly uphill fight to renew the "private option" expansion during next month's legislative session, Beebe also defended his administration's estimate of how much the state budget would have to be cut if the program ends.

Beebe has estimated about $89 million of his budget depends on the savings the state expects to see from the private option cutting down on hospitals' uncompensated care costs. With lawmakers unlikely to repeal tax cuts approved last year, Beebe said that would threaten the new prison funding he has proposed.

"If we don't repeal the tax cuts and we don't save the $80-something-million through continuation of private option, we're in a hole $80-something-million. ... So you've got a big interest in the private option, whether you've got a big interest in the private option or not," Beebe said at the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association winter meeting.

Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income workers. Narrowly approved by lawmakers as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health overhaul, the program is at risk of being defunded when the Legislature convenes Feb. 10 for this year's session.

The plan has lost two key votes over the past month, with a Republican who opposed it winning a special election for a northeast Arkansas Senate seat and Republican Sen. Missy Irvin announcing she no longer supported the program.

Beebe also pushed back against Republican gubernatorial hopeful Asa Hutchinson, who a day earlier expressed skepticism about the $89 million figure when talking to the sheriff's group.

"Those people who would criticize that budget, whether it's Mr. Hutchinson or anybody else, if they've got better numbers, I'd sure like to hear them," Beebe said.

Hutchinson said his comments weren't directed at Beebe, but at questions he had about the projected savings. Hutchinson said those questions include whether the savings are based upon the current enrollment in the Medicaid expansion.

"I have a probing mind and I'm trying to figure out the basis of that estimate," Hutchinson said. "It's not directed at anything other than reflecting the whole fuzziness and the uncertainty of the picture right now."

Beebe, who defeated Hutchinson in the 2006 governor's race, is barred by term limits from seeking re-election in November. Beebe has endorsed Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross.

Beebe said the financial consequences of not renewing the private option are even more dire than when it was first considered last year, since the tax cut package that was also approved by the Legislature depended on savings from the expansion.

"This session on the private option is more critical than it was last year because of those tax cuts," Beebe told reporters.

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