Arkansas legislators have given initial approval to Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to continue a modified form of the state's Medicaid expansion, but the margins suggest it will be an uphill battle to approve funding.
The House voted 70-30 Thursday morning to approve the Arkansas Works proposal. The Senate then approved an identical version of the bill 25-10. Simple majorities were needed for passage in the special session. If signed into law Friday as expected, the funding bill for the program faces a three-quarters vote requirement in the fiscal session that begins next week.
On the House floor, Republican State Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville, the primary sponsor in the House, gave a lengthy defense of the program, saying that continuing coverage for low income Arkansans will help the state and hospitals.
"The bottom line is Arkansas Works saves $150 million a year on the budget and $250 million a year in uncompensated care to hospitals," he said.
Collins argued that emergency room visits, which are typically costly, have dropped significantly since the state adopted the Medicaid expansion program. It uses federal money to provide coverage for about 250,000 thousand people.
Several legislators spoke against the bill in the House. Among them was Republican Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville, who suggested the program makes Arkansas into a "welfare state" and contributes to the national debt.
“I don’t believe we will make Arkansas prosperous by bankrupting our children’s future and making our state dependent on federal dollars," she said. "There is no free money in Washington."
Hutchinson has outline four areas of changes to what has been known as the private option. Modifications include requiring some recipients to pay premiums, incentives for employer-based care, work training referrals and the eligibility and verification system characterized by the governor's office as improving program integrity.
Final votes on the proposal are expected Friday morning in both chambers. If passed, as expected, the bill would go to Gov. Hutchinson for his signature.
The plan faces a tougher battle at the fiscal session next week, with the budget bill for the program needing at least three-fourths support from the House and Senate.
Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville says he hopes the 30 ‘no’ votes will stick together.
"I’m not worried about any of them," Ballinger said after the House vote, "Between now and then we have to make sure that we communicate and explain what our position is and then let people make their decisions."
Republicans in the House split 35-29 in favor of the bill. Every Democrat voted for the bill, including Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock. He said those who want to hold up the appropriation risk setting an obstructionist precedent.
“We still have 35 members in the House. It’s not a majority obviously, but it’s more than the 25 necessary to hold up an appropriation. That same stick could be used by the minority party just as easily,” said Tucker.
Senate Republicans split 14-10. Supporters of Arkansas Works in the upper chamber need to pick up two more ‘yes’ votes for Medicaid expansion funds to pass in the fiscal session.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said:
I was pleased by the strength of the vote margin for the passage of the Arkansas Works. The results exceeded our expectations and are a clear indication that a very strong, bipartisan majority supports this policy for Arkansas. This impressive vote is a solid foundation for the funding approval in the Fiscal Session.
The governor's office said Hutchinson is tentatively set to sign the Arkansas Works bill at 10 a.m. Friday morning.