The state House will get to vote on legislation that would allow the state to provide health insurance to roughly 250,000 low income Arkansans after the House public health committee advanced it Tuesday.
There was audible opposition to the voice vote, but the bill will make it to the full House, where it will need 51 votes for approval. However, it will also need a budget appropriation for full implementation and that takes a tougher 75 votes.
Just before the vote House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, a Republican, removed his name as a sponsor of the bill. That could be an indication of a rift among Republicans whose votes are key for the private option to pass. Westerman told reporters he doesn’t think there is enough time to assess the program before voting on it.
“I still think it will pass, and hopefully we'll be able to work something out where we'll be able to take some time and evaluate it some more,” he said.
Westerman said he signed onto the bill originally to have more of a say and get some aspects of it changed, which he says hasn't worked out.
“As the caucus leader, the caucus wants to know where I'm at on it,” he said. “I feel like I needed to go ahead and make my mind up since we're going to be voting on it this week, and we'll go from here.”
Representative John Burris, also a Republican, said the bill needs to be voted on now to meet deadlines. He called it the best deal the state can get.
“It would be much more palatable to perhaps negotiate, wait, answer questions, give and take and maybe pass something else down the line, be it this summer or special session or fiscal session,” Burris said. “But, when told that we have to have a plan in two weeks, we wrote the plan that does exactly what we want and if we don't get all of it, it's off. So, I mean, I'm fine with that.”
Arguing for the plan, he said that flooding the private insurance market with the mostly healthy population that would be eligible for insurance payment aid under the Affordable Care Act could help reduce insurance costs for other consumers.
“Premiums are going up, probably drastically, but by adding 225,000 healthy adults into a private market as opposed to Medicaid, it has a great stabilizing force that potentially could reduce those premium increases that we're all going to see,” he said.
Speaking on the bill for about an hour, Burris told the committee that, for him, health insurance expansion is not about getting $100 million in tax cuts that have been held up as a trade off for expansion.
Governor Mike Beebe, who has pushed expansion, has connected the federal money it will bring in with possible tax cuts Republicans have proposed.
Speaking to reporters he said he remains cautiously optimistic the the legislature will have the necessary vote to expand health coverage, but he said the House Majority Leader dropping off the bill could be a bad sign.
“Sure, it's a vote, and to the extent he influences any other votes, it's not good,” Beebe said.
The committee also passed an identical bill from the Senate, which passed the enabling legislation last week. The House vote will likely happen Thursday.