Arkansas General Assembly
6:36 pm
Tue February 25, 2014

5th House Vote On Private Option Delayed

Arkansas House of Representatives Chamber
Credit wikipedia.org

The Arkansas House of Representatives is showing more signs of a continued stalemate over reauthorizing funds for the private option. On Tuesday measures to fund the Department of Human Services Division of Medical Services were not brought up for a vote, as House leadership indicated that the chamber was still two votes shy of reaching the 75 percent supermajority to reapprove the healthcare program for poor Arkansans.

House speaker Davy Carter told reporters he thought that recent amendments to ban state and federally funded promotion for the program would garner enough support to pass a private option bill this fiscal session.

“The reality of the situation is...that either A: there have to be a couple of people that support the measure as is. Or B... Somebody has to produce something that goes through [the Joint Budget Committee] and unwinds the Senate and gets three-fourths support in [the House].”

Carter says the House and Senate will now try to focus on passing the rest of the state budget until legislators can come up with new ideas to find enough support to refund the private option.  

“If somebody else has got a better idea then I want to see it....just produce it...There is nothing else out there,” he said.

State Representative Nate Bell (R, Mena)
Credit Arkansas State Legislature

State Representative Nate Bell, an opponent of the program who had attempted to negotiate a compromise between opponents and supporters, says he’s disappointed in the way things have gone so far.

“The folks who are for the program have negotiated with me in good faith. I’ve made every attempt to find a path that everyone could be for,” he said. “[The supporters] made some rather large concessions and I appreciate the effort that they’ve put in to working with me on it. I frankly wish folks that were on my side had done more to come to the table and make it come together.”

Bell introduced amendments that limit outreach for the private option and Health Insurance Marketplace as a way of garnering support for the program’s funding bill among its few opponents.

Bell, an opponent of the private option, says he is trying to find a way to pass funding for the program this session because he acknowledges that there is not enough support in the legislature to defund the program.

“Negotiations are ongoing with anybody that’s willing to talk. But...every reasonable person in the state of Arkansas understands that a complete wind down, a complete defund or an early defund are simply not on the table. I understood that many months ago and that’s why I’ve taken the route to try and find a reasonable path forward and unfortunately several members don’t see it that way,” he said.  

The private option allows low-income Arkansans living below 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($15,856 for an individual; $32,499 for a household of four) to choose private health insurance plans paid for by federal Medicaid dollars. The insurance plans (Qualified Health Plans) they can buy are comparable to ones bought on the Health Insurance Marketplace

On Tuesday, the state Department of Human Services released new figures showing that 105, 561 Arkansans have attained coverage through the private option. 11, 595 of those have been determined medically frail and are covered through traditional Medicaid, while the rest (93,966) have enrolled in Qualified Health Plans.

Democrats Protest Private Option Opposition

Tensions surrounding the private option were demonstrated Tuesday when House Minority Leader Greg Leding, a Democrat, introduced a symbolic amendment to the funding bill for the state Highway and Transportation Department.

The proposed amendment states that “a highway located in the State of Arkansas for which construction was funded with federal dollars that increase the outstanding public debt of the United States” shall not be named after certain individuals including anyone who “served as chair of a standing committee of the General Assembly.”

Leding’s measure appeared directed at opponents of the private option who have argued that accepting funds for the program will contribute to the federal deficit and debt.

On the House floor, Leding said “whatever our differences are, however heated it might get here on the House floor, outside this room, off the court, there’s not one of you I don’t count as a friend.”

“If we are unwilling or concerned about adding millions to the federal deficit,” he went on to say, “by extending much needed health insurance to nearly a quarter million working Arkansans then we should also be unwilling to add our names to any other federal project that adds millions to the federal deficit.”

Leding’s amendment brought a response from Republican Representative Bob Ballinger, who spoke against the amendment.

“It was very clear that this is connected to an ongoing discussion that I really wish wasn’t a fight. And it almost seems like this is a direct jab at some individual in here,” Ballinger, an opponent of the private option,  said.

The amendment failed with 23 yeas and 42 nays with many members choosing to abstain from voting.