Davy Carter Says He's Open to Private Option Tweaks

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter said Monday he's open to changing the state's compromise Medicaid expansion but remains confident there's enough support among lawmakers to reauthorize the program when the Legislature convenes this month.

Carter said he believed there's enough support to continue the "private option" that was approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment. Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents.

Carter, R-Cabot, said he's willing to look at any changes that may be needed to the expansion if that would help gain support among members. Reauthorizing the program will require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate.

"Do we need to tweak some things here and there? Maybe," Carter told The Associated Press in an interview in his office. "I think we'll talk about areas in which we can do better and I'm certainly open to that, but backing up at this point and pulling up on the state, I'm not interested in that. I don't think the General Assembly is interested in that. I still think we're going to pass it."

More than 79,000 people have enrolled in Arkansas' private option program, and state officials say they expect it to hit 100,000 when the Legislature convenes Feb. 10 for a session focused primarily on the state's budget. Prospects for renewing the program have dimmed in recent weeks, with supporters losing two key votes for the expanded program.

Carter said he expected the private option to be considered within the first week the session, since so much of the state's budget will depend on whether the program is reauthorized. Gov. Mike Beebe has said $89 million of his $5 billion budget relies on the savings the state is expected to see from the private option cutting down on hospitals' uncompensated care costs.

"Whether we pass it or don't pass it is going to affect everyone else's budget," Carter said. "It's impossible to finalize a budget without getting this issue resolved first."

The private option had sharply divided Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate. Carter and other GOP backers of the plan called it a conservative alternative that gave them a chance to reform the state's Medicaid program. Opponents, however, called it no different than the expansion envisioned by the law they had vowed to fight.

The renewed debate over the private option comes as lawmakers are gearing up for the May 20 primary election. The filing period for state offices begins Feb. 24, and many Republicans who supported the program face primary battles with private option opponents.

Carter said he hoped the debate over wouldn't be influence by the primary battles.

"Obamacare can only be changed at the federal level," Carter said. "So I would be very disappointed if members of the General Assembly overlooked what's best for the state of Arkansas and instead chose the politics over the policy and continue to run against the president and make that issue murkier here than it should be. The people of Arkansas don't deserve that."

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