LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday he'd prefer legislators consider whether to expand Medicaid eligibility during this year's regular session rather than later in the year, a delay that he said would cost the state more money.
"Handle it in a regular session. That's what they're here for. Deal with it," Beebe told The Associated Press in an interview in his office. "If we've got to work nights, OK. ... You're much better off saving the taxpayer dollars and doing your job in a regular session as opposed to coming back and starting all over in a special session."
The Legislature convenes for its regular session Jan. 14. While legislative leaders have said the possibility of a later, special session on Medicaid is appealing, Beebe is the only one with the power to call one, and he all but shut the door to the idea.
Expanding Medicaid under the federal law would add 250,000 people to the program in Arkansas, but it would require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate. Beebe, a Democrat, supports the expansion. Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature in the upcoming session, generally oppose the expansion but have said they're open to a compromise that would allow for program changes they believe will save money.
The federal health care law calls for the federal government to pay the full tab for the Medicaid expansion when it begins in 2014. After three years, states must pay a gradually increasing share that tops out at 10 percent of the cost. The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld the health care law, but justices said the federal government could not take away states' existing federal Medicaid dollars if states refused to expand eligibility.
Beebe has called only one special session since taking office in 2007, a three-day session in 2008 where lawmakers approved a hike in the state's severance tax on natural gas. The governor said he wouldn't consider another special session unless it was an issue that could be handled as quickly.
"We don't call special sessions that aren't designed to be three-day special sessions, which means everything is done before I call it," Beebe said.
The Medicaid expansion debate is expected to be a more heated discussion, after Republicans won control of the Legislature partly on a vow to fight the federal health care law at the state level.
GOP leaders also have said they want to address a shortfall in Arkansas' Medicaid program that has prompted state officials to propose service cuts before talking about any expansion. Beebe has said the savings generated by the expansion would help Arkansas avoid cuts in nursing home care proposed to fill that shortfall.
Beebe said he would consider concessions to Republicans in exchange for a Medicaid expansion. Republicans have suggested changes that include requiring co-pays and drug testing for some Medicaid recipients.
"I'm open to listening to them," Beebe said. "Number one, it depends on what you're doing, how much is it going to cost, is it legal with the feds, is it something that actually accomplishes something, is it positive as opposed to punitive? There are all sorts of issues that come to mind, but would I listen to them? Of course."
He also wouldn't rule out asking the federal government to reconsider its decision preventing states from enacting a partial expansion of Medicaid. The Obama administration last month said states that do a partial expansion wouldn't get the three years of full federal funding provided under the law.
Beebe said he's still approaching his last regular session as a partnership with the Legislature, despite an election where his party lost control of both chambers for the first time in 138 years.
"They're in charge of the money and they're in charge of the public policy, and we'll work with them," he said. "It's my job to propose and my job to influence and certainly my job to lead. We don't back up from any of those things, but this is a partnership."
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