Newly elected Speaker-designate Rep. Jeremy Gillam says he hopes the state House of Representatives can avoid some of the "drama" it experienced this year as it struggled to find the votes to continue the private-option expansion of Medicare.
Gillam, R-Judsonia, spoke Friday alongside Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville; Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock; and Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, in a Political Animals panel discussion about the private option, how it was passed and what's in store for the future.
During this year's fiscal session, the Senate passed a bill continuing funding for the program passed last year, but the House voted four days in a row and came up short of the required supermajority each time. The bill finally passed on the fifth try earlier this month.
"It's going to be our focus going into the next session is making sure we don't necessarily have a repeat situation," Gillam said, stressing he wants to continue a productive dialogue among representatives opposed and in favor of the program as questions about it are answered and changes weighed.
"If it's working and if the membership is all in agreement it is working, hopefully [members who still have reservations will] be able to get their questions answered, they'll have input … and we won't see as much drama as we may have in the past," he added later.
The private option funding will have to be reapproved, again by a three-quarters supermajority in both chambers, next year.
Leding, who is the minority leader in the House, said he is hopeful enrollment will be above 200,000 in the program by the next regular session in 2015 and the private option will "continue to be successful as it has been to date."
"So it will be that much more difficult for us to pull the plug," he said. "It's important to keep that in mind, that ultimate goal of keeping these quarter of a million Arkansans insured. But I do anticipate a challenge."
Chesterfield said the struggle to pass the private option this year was "extremely frustrating" but she's proud that common ground was reached.
"You know you look back and you rejoice," she said. "But you also look back and say we must be constantly vigilant in order to ensure that we protect what we have."
Sanders said the private option will continue to evolve, including bringing "the element of consumerism" and health savings accounts into the program.
"We're going to push the envelope on innovation in ways that quite frankly I don't think it's ever been done, certainly in the United States," he said. "But it's going to be done in a way that this isn't going to be a landing point. It truly is a continuum."