LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' governor and legislative leaders said Friday they don't expect another funding fight over the future of the state's Medicaid expansion, even if a federal judge blocks the state from enforcing a work requirement on the program.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, incoming Senate President Jim Hendren and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said they don't expect difficulty in winning the three-fourths support needed in both chambers to keep the state's expansion alive another year. Arkansas' program uses state and federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents and has narrowly survived efforts by opponents in past years to defund it.
Arkansas' legislative session begins on Monday. The three Republicans spoke at a forum hosted by The Associated Press and the Arkansas Press Association.
Hendren said he doesn't think there's an appetite to threaten the entire Medicaid budget over opposition to the expansion program.
"I believe that most of the Senate recognizes that governing by shutdown is not how we're going to run Arkansas," Hendren said. "I don't think people are happy with the way they're doing that in D.C."
Shepherd said he hasn't seen anything that indicates the same type of defunding effort.
"At this point there just hasn't been the discussion that you've seen in past years," he said.
A federal lawsuit is challenging a requirement that some people insured by the expansion work or lose coverage. Arkansas was the first state to enforce such a requirement on a Medicaid program, and has removed nearly 17,000 for not complying with the rule. Hutchinson said he's confident the requirement will be upheld, but didn't think the lawsuit jeopardizes the program's future.
"It would be very troubling if the court struck it down because I believe it's the right balance between responsibility and compassion," Hutchinson said. "There would be legislators who would be troubled by it, but I think there will be a commitment to let's continue to fight for that work requirement."
Hutchinson also said the state so far has seen a limited impact from the federal government shutdown. Hutchinson said ten employees from the state Department of Finance and Administration who have responsibilities related to federal funds have been furloughed. Another six employees from the Crime Lab had been furloughed, but are back at work.
Hutchinson left open the possibility of the state stepping in on some federal services if the shutdown drags on longer. One example he cited is the Buffalo River National Park, a popular tourist destination he said may need support if the federal government remains shuttered in the spring.
"We have not had to do that yet, but that option may be available," he said.