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House members claim progress on ending stalemate over private option


LITTLE ROCK — The House adjourned for the week Thursday and members went home without a vote on the so-called private option, but members said a possible way to end the stalemate on the issue had emerged in closed-door negotiations.

Also Thursday, the House approved and sent to the governor a bill that would allow the lieutenant governor’s office to remain vacant until the November general election.

House members said that in private meetings Wednesday and Thursday, the idea of limiting enrollment in the private option to a certain period each year, instead of the current policy of allowing enrollment year-round, was discussed and appeared to receive some initial support. The dates for the enrollment period would be determined later.

The House voted four times last week on an appropriation of federal funding for the private option, the state’s program to use federal Medicaid money to subsidize private insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Each time, the measure — which the Senate passed last week in a single vote — fell a few votes short of the 75 needed for passage in the 100-member House.

The House did not take a vote this week.

House members on both sides of the issue have acknowledged that support is lacking for new amendments to the bill, which was amended earlier in the session in a failed attempt to secure 75 votes. But members said Thursday that one appealing aspect to the idea of setting an annual open-enrollment period is that the state Department of Human Services could make the change, if the federal government approves, without the need for an amendment to the bill.

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said he did not know whether the idea would resolve the impasse over the private option, but he said it is worth considering.

“I don’t want anybody to be under the impression that we’re marching out of here with legislation for open enrollment, but that was one of the ideas that came out of those discussions,” he said.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said the idea would not be enough to persuade him to switch from voting “no” to “yes,” but he said that “I do think it may be enough for a couple.”

He said the idea is appealing to some because “it’ll slow things down.”

The appropriation for the private option is included in the budget for DHS’ Division of Medical Services. Cozart has floated a proposal to separate it from the rest of DHS’ budget but has admitted that it likely would not have enough support to pass.

“I don’t think everybody’s going to just love (the open-enrollment idea), but you know, we’re at an impasse,” Cozart said. “We’ve got to have a budget. That’s my deal: We’ve got to have a budget. I don’t want to come back in June.”

The fiscal session began Feb. 10 and cannot be extended beyond 45 days.

House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said that “there are no major concerns in our caucus (about the open-enrollment idea), so we feel that it’s probably something we could support.”

Leding said the change would not happen until the next calendar year and noted that nearly 200,000 Arkansas have already applied for coverage.

“We could be close to about a quarter of a million by the time we get to the end of the fiscal year this year, and we were only looking to cover about 250,000 Arkansans under this program, so we could have just about every eligible Arkansan already in the program near the end of the year,” he said.

Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said the governor “hasn’t made any promises to anyone,” but he said the governor is open to the idea and likes that it would not require any changes to the current legislation or deny coverage to anyone. People who applied outside of the enrollment period and were found eligible would be enrolled in traditional Medicaid and would be allowed to apply for the private option later if they chose, DeCample said.

The House did vote Tuesday on Senate Bill 139 by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams R-Cabot. The bill would allow the governor not to call a special election to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office when the vacancy occurs within 10 months of a general election in which the office would be filled, if the governor determines that holding a special election is impractical because of the timing of the vacancy.

The bill passed 76-10.

Former Lt. Gov. Mark Darr resigned Feb. 1 after being fined $11,000 by the state Ethics Commission for misuse of campaign contributions and taxpayer dollars. Beebe has said he will sign the bill and will not call a special election in order to save taxpayer dollars.

Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, said on the House floor that the bill contains wording that appears to allow the governor to leave legislators’ seats open for indefinite periods of time.

Rep. Andrea Lea, R-Russellville, who presented the bill in the House, told Sabin, “My understanding is that no, it does not leave that kind of power in the governor’s hands.”

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said the bill would take care of a specific problem that exists now.

“When we get back here (for later sessions), if you don’t like something, then we’re all free to work on it and change it,” he said.