Private option fight to continue as session enters third week


LITTLE ROCK — The House will take up funding for the private option again this week, the third week of the fiscal session that began Feb. 10, but whether the votes can be mustered to pass it after four failed attempts is far from clear.

The proposed appropriation of $915 million in federal funding to continue the program failed in House votes on four consecutive days last week, but House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters he remained “100 percent” confident it would pass before the end of the session, which cannot be extended beyond 45 days.

“I am not wavering from that. It will pass. It’s just a matter of when,” he said.

The House and Senate are not meeting Monday but will meet on Tuesday. Carter said the House will vote again on the private option Tuesday and will keep voting on it until it passes.

The private option is Arkansas’ program, approved last year, to use federal Medicaid money to pay for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to obtain insurance through the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace. About 102,000 Arkansans have been found eligible for the program, but if funding for the coming fiscal year is not renewed the program will have to be scrapped.

The Senate waited until Thursday to vote and passed the appropriation the first time out. In contrast, Carter began calling votes Tuesday and has done so every day — a strategy that some members have questioned.

“I’d prefer that we wait to vote until we knew what votes we had and could have some confidence in the process, because I think it is disconcerting, both to the membership of the Legislature as well as the general public, that we have to wait for certain members to come around on this issue,” said Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock.

House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said that “at the outset it was a smart strategy, and it might yet prove to be the right strategy. I know that it is trying on the nerves of many members in both caucuses. There are a lot of members who are facing difficult campaigns, and they feel those repeated votes on this particular issue put them at risk, but to their credit they keep voting because they know it’s the right thing to do.”

Carter said he sympathizes with the members but stands by his approach.

“There’s too many other things going on that I’m not going to talk about here now that require the approach that we’ve undertaken,” he said.

Earlier in the session, the House and Senate agreed to accept an amendment proposed by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, that would prohibit the state from promoting the private option or the insurance marketplace and ban funding for in-person assisters to help people enroll. Bell offered the amendment as a compromise intended to help the appropriation pass, but so far the only person who has switched from opposing to supporting the measure because of the amendment is Bell.

Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, said last week that Bell’s amendment did not change her position because it “really did nothing.” She said she will continue voting against the program she described as “a huge expansion of people becoming dependent on the government.”

House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, who opposes the private option, said he would like to see the private option funding separated from the rest of the Department of Human Services’ budget and voted on separately.

“I don’t think there’s anyone there who doesn’t want to fund the agency,” he said.

Minority Whip Joe Jett, D-Success, said Democratic members would not support a DHS budget that does not include the private option.

“That’s D.O.A.,” he said.

If the private option fails again Tuesday, Jett said Democratic members may begin talking about ending the session without passing any other bills, requiring a special session to pass a state budget.

“We have members right now wanting to have that discussion. We’re just kind of holding solid because we keep thinking it’s going to be today or Tuesday,” he said on Friday. “But after that, all bets are off for us.”

Carter said he understands that the Democratic caucus — and the half of the Republican caucus that supports the private option — is frustrated, but he said he hopes the members will not give up on passing the bill during the fiscal session.

“If we start that … we’re just going backwards, and we’re not interested in going backwards,” he said.