Impasse Over 'Private Option' Continues; House Measure Fails Again

LITTLE ROCK —

An impasse over the future of Arkansas' first-in-the-nation plan to use Medicaid funds to buy private insurance for the poor stretched into a fourth day Friday, as legislation to continue the program again failed before the state House.

The House voted 71-18 to reauthorize funding for the "private option," falling four votes shy of the 75 needed in the 100-member chamber to continue the program approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law. More than 87,000 people are receiving subsidized health coverage through the program, a model several other Republican-leaning states are exploring.

The state Senate had approved the funding measure Thursday without a vote to spare.

Tensions boiled over about the back-to-back failed votes, with House Speaker Davy Carter dispatching state troopers to find a lawmaker absent from the votes. Democrats also raised the possibility of the stalemate threatening votes on other parts of the state's budget.

Carter vowed to continue holding votes on the bill until it passes, resuming when the Legislature meets again Tuesday.

"I don't like having our members ... out here getting beat up like a piñata every day and putting everybody through these games," said Carter, R-Cabot. "But there's too many other things going on that I'm not going to talk about now that require the approach that we've undertaken."

The proposal failed even after a lawmaker who had been seen as a key vote announced on the floor that he'd back the program. Rep. Mark Lowery called the legislation "imperfect," but said the program ultimately would help the state's economy by keeping workers healthy.

"If we can keep them healthy with this program, then they're able to make that money and they're able to buy groceries, they're able to pay income tax," said Lowery, R-Maumelle. "They're able to churn that money back into the economy. This is not something where we lose."

But another lawmaker who had been viewed as a potential swing vote — Republican Rep. Les Carnine of Rogers — said he told Carter he couldn't support the legislation.

The plan has sharply divided Republicans and the votes likely will continue to be an issue in GOP primaries for legislative, statewide and congressional offices in May. Republicans control the Legislature and have made major gains in Arkansas during the past two elections by running against President Barack Obama's health care law.

Despite that push against the law they derided as "Obamacare," top Republicans in the Legislature were the architects and biggest advocates of the private option. They argued private insurers could provide services more efficiently than the government, and cast it as a way to reform the Medicaid program.

GOP opponents have said the compromise is no different than a full embrace of the federal health law and said the state can't afford the eventual cost.

Their frustration rising, House Democrats raised the possibility of not approving any other budget bills if the private option vote continues to fail.

"We're going to get to a point in time about Tuesday that my members are going to start taking a step back and saying ... if the only way we can get it is to leverage it, then that discussion is going to be made in my caucus," said House Minority Whip Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success.

A chief opponent of the private option said he had no concerns about the back-to-back votes, and said he'll continue urging the measure be taken out of the Department of Human Services' Medicaid budget.

"I think it would be productive to start looking at what we can all agree on," House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said. "I believe probably 95 to 100 percent of the members are in favor of the DHS budget"

In a sign of the mounting frustration over the program, Carter ordered state troopers to find Republican Rep. John Payton of Wilburn, who had agreed to "pair" his vote opposing the private option with a supporter of the program. Pairing allows absent lawmakers' votes to be counted if they're linked to an opposing vote by a present member.

Another opponent of the program later agreed to pair his vote with the "yes" cast by Democratic Rep. Reginald Murdock of Marianna. Payton did not immediately return a call Friday.

"Would I have rather not had to do that? Yes, but we've got to be here," Carter told reporters. "There are some members who want to play games, but this is going too far."

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