The Arkansas House Public Health Committee passed proposals Monday that would give 250,000 low-income Arkansans access to government-funded private health insurance.
House Bill 1143, sponsored by state Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, passed the committee on a voice vote. The legislation now heads to the House for a vote, scheduled for Wednesday.
An identical bill, Senate Bill 1020, sponsored by state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, was also presented by Burris and passed the committee on a voice vote. SB1020 was approved by the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee last Wednesday.
The bills are making their way through both Arkansas chambers simultaneously, since the legislative session is scheduled to end April 19.
House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, proposed amendments to both bills to have his name removed as a co-sponsor.
Westerman said he believed lawmakers were moving to fast, and wanted to take more time to make a decision.
"I believe we're rushing this," Westerman said before the House committee.
Burris, the committee chairman, said the legislation was the state's best option under the circumstances. Burris said that if lawmakers took no action, the federal government would implement as it sees fit, taking away the state's chance to make provisions.
Burris said that lawmakers taking no action would set in motion close to 900,000 Arkansans receiving Medicaid benefits, and that Medicaid costs and the number of beneficiaries would continue to grow.
By passing the "private option" plan, Burris said, the state could reduce the number of Medicaid beneficiaries to about 500,000 in two to three years, control costs and provide Arkansans with better care on private plans.
The "private option" plan is an alternative to expanding the Medicaid under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
A July decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on the federal health-care law allowed states to choose whether to extend Medicaid access to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or $15,145 for an individual. It also calls for states to set up a private insurance marketplace for people to pick their own plan.
In a February meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave Gov. Mike Beebe approval to pursue the plan, and recently gave written confirmation in a letter to Beebe that the federal government supported Arkansas' "innovative approach" to expanding health insurance.
Several committee members voiced support for delaying the legislation, and calling a special session in the summer to concentrate on health care. Others were concerned with the viability of the law a few years from now.
Burris said he understood both arguments, but said now is the time to act. Waiting until the summer puts the state behind on meeting future deadlines, and the state runs the risk of not having legislation in place by January 2014, Burris said.
Burris also said he shared committee members' concerns in how the legislation would affect the state three to five years from now, but felt confident the legislation would work.
The House is expected to vote on HB1143 later this week.
If legislation is passed by Arkansas lawmakers to extend Medicaid to 250,000 low-income Arkansans, another bill would be necessary to authorize the state to spend the billions in federal money.
Read full details in Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.