Arkansas Legislature Begins Special Session To Consider Healthcare

Apr 6, 2016

Gov. Asa Hutchinson shakes hands as he enters the Arkansas House chamber to deliver a speech at the opening of a special session of the legislature.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is calling the debate over the future of the hybrid Medicaid expansion a "watershed" moment for the state. He compared the special session convened on his proposal to keep and rework the expansion to past sessions on major issues such as the state's school funding system.

Speaking to a joint session of the Legislature at the start of the session Wednesday, Hutchinson also said the criticism he's facing from both sides is an indication he has struck the right balance. The Republican governor urged lawmakers to approve his plan that uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaking at the start of the special session.

Hutchinson noted that some say the restrictions go too far, while some Republicans have said he didn't push hard enough for more changes to the program covering more than 250,000 people.

Hutchinson said his proposal, dubbed "Arkansas Works," provides key reforms to the expansion program and will allow participants to move up the economic ladder.

It was created three years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law and has sharply divided Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature.

As the session was getting underway earlier in the day, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam urged representative to "take a deep breath" and work together. He also called for members to remain focused.

Federal officials say they want to work with Arkansas on the changes, but said law won't allow ideas previously floated that included an asset test for coverage and a requirement that participants work.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told Gov. Hutchinson in a letter dated Tuesday that she was committed to finding a "workable" approach to Hutchinson's plan to require some participants to enroll in their employers' health insurance if available. Hutchinson's proposal calls for the expansion program to pay for premiums for those participants.

Hutchinson cited the letter during his address. Burwell wrote that while a work requirement isn't allowed, the agency would support referring applicants to programs that "increase their connection to the workforce." Hutchinson has proposed requiring some participants be referred to job training and placement programs. 

Burwell said federal law wouldn't allow a restriction on participants' assets, a restriction Hutchinson had initially proposed but later dropped. If lawmakers approve Hutchinson's plan this week, the budget bill to keep the expansion alive needs the support of at least three-fourths of the House and Senate during a fiscal session set to begin next week.

You can watch a live feed while the house is in session here.