Posted 2/12/2014 10:20 am
Updated 6 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — A state Senate leader warned colleagues on Tuesday that Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion was at risk, as lawmakers tried to map out a timeline for deciding the future of the health care program.
Supporters of the state's "private option" said they still didn't have enough votes in the Senate to reauthorize the plan that was approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health care law.
During a closed-door meeting, Sen. Larry Teague, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, told other senators that they'd grapple with the consequences later in the session if the Legislature blocks funding for the private option. Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents.
"I just told them that I thought the private option was at risk and wanted them to understand the scenario if private option didn't pass," Teague, D-Nashville, said after the meeting in the Senate.
Gov. Mike Beebe has said $89 million in the budget depends on expected savings from the private option cutting down on hospitals' uncompensated care costs. If the private option failed, Teague said lawmakers would take up other agencies' budgets and address the potential shortfall in the proposed Revenue Stabilization bill — the state budget measure handled toward the end of the session.
The private option is the top agenda item for lawmakers during the fiscal session, which convened Monday and is intended to focus primarily on the state's budget.
A legislative subcommittee planned to meet Wednesday afternoon to look at proposals aimed at swaying opponents of the private option.
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 programs.
The private option needs at least 27 votes in the 35-member Senate and 75 in the 100-member House to be reauthorized. The plan lost two key votes in the Senate after an opponent of the private option won a special election last month, and a former backer of the program said she'd vote against it.
Senate President Michael Lamoureux said supporters still are shy of the 27th vote to keep the expansion alive. Lamoureux described the tone of the closed-door meeting as "frustration" among supporters and opponents.
"The consequences of this are serious and they're not clear. This has been a long process and it's not a simple vote," Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said. "It's not like we're trying to do something that's easy to do and that if we don't do it the consequences are crystal clear."
Despite the uncertainty about the program, Lamoureux and House Speaker Davy Carter said they expected initial votes on the private option soon — possibly as early as this week. The private option is included within the budget bill for the state's Medicaid program.
"There's no need to wait," Carter, R-Cabot, said. "Until you vote, everything else is just puffery. ... Until you go vote, everything else is irrelevant. We just need to see where everybody's at."
The first movement could come Wednesday, when a legislative panel was expected to look at amendments to the private option law aimed at swaying opponents of the expansion. Carter has said he believes there is enough support in the House to keep the private option alive.
Lawmakers also moved forward with another key agenda item on the session. The Senate voted 32-0 to take up a measure that would give the governor the choice to not call a special election to replace former Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who resigned Feb. 1 over ethics violations. Current law requires the governor to call a special election within 150 days of the vacancy, but lawmakers from both parties have complained about the cost of a special election just months before the November general election.
Taking up the measure requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate since it's not a budget bill. The House Rules Committee advanced an identical resolution regarding the special election measure.
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