House, Senate leaders endorse private option for health care expansion


LITTLE ROCK — The Republican leaders of the state House and Senate on Monday threw their support behind the private option for providing health care coverage to Arkansas’ working poor under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Their support for approving health care expansion during the current session contrasted with the view expressed Monday by the GOP House Caucus leader, who proposed waiting until the 2014 fiscal session to decide whether to appropriate funding for the private option — an idea that the governor and the House and Senate leaders flatly rejected.

Talking to reporters Monday, House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said the private option for health care expansion — using federal Medicaid money to pay the premiums for Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to buy health insurance through the state insurance exchange — is “a good thing.”

“These members have done an outstanding job on putting together what I think is a great start for dealing with the health care issues that the federal government has laid in our lap,” Carter said of legislators who have been working on enabling legislation for the expansion. “I’m proud of it. I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m proud of what they’ve done. If we get it enacted, and I think we will, I’m going to be proud of everything, all the membership, the way we’ve come together and worked together.”

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said later that he also supports the private option, which the state Department of Human Services said last week could save the state $670 million over 10 years.

“I think it’s good for consumers, I think it’s good for health care providers, I think it’s ultimately good for the state budget, and I think it will reduce the Medicaid rolls, which has been a major concern of mine for a long time,” Lamoureux said. “I think it’s kind of a win-win.”

About 250,000 Arkansans earning up to $15,856 for an individual or $32,499 for a family of four are expected to receive subsidies to buy insurance through the exchange if Arkansas chooses the private option.

The federal government would pay the full cost of the expansion for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost would increase gradually to 10 percent.

Meanwhile, House GOP leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, told reporters that one option for addressing health care expansion would be to pass the enabling legislation this session but with an effective date of July 1, 2014, rather than Jan. 1, 2014.

“If we didn’t start it until July 1, 2014, there wouldn’t be any flow-through of federal money on the plan until July 1, 2014, which means we wouldn’t have to include that in the appropriation in this session,” he said. “We could do it in the fiscal session next year. I believe this would give us more time to get the plan established, to prove it, to vet it in the public eye and to make sure that it’s the right thing for Arkansas going forward.”

Westerman, who previously proposed holding a special session later this year to decide on appropriating money for the expansion, acknowledged that his latest proposal would cause the state to lose six months of federal funding.

“I would rather us develop a sound program that everybody can understand and support than just to make a rash decision here in two weeks and lose total control of what’s going to happen on the private option,” he said.

Beebe told reporters Monday that Westerman’s idea “doesn’t work.” He noted that legislative leaders are intent on passing a number of tax cuts this session.

“If you’re going to have your tax cuts, you can’t pay for them without (health care) expansion. That’s pretty much does away with that. So I think that upsets a whole bunch of his colleagues,” Beebe said.

The governor also said he did not want to delay providing health insurance, paid for by the federal government, to “people who truly do need it, working folks,” and that a delay would pose logistical problems for state officials and insurance companies in setting up the insurance exchange.

Carter and Lamoureux both said they want to pass the enabling legislation and the appropriation for the expansion during this session.