- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said he remained hopeful Arkansas would continue its compromise Medicaid expansion despite an impasse in the state Legislature, but warned that abandoning the program could lead to “severe” budget cuts.

House Speaker Davy Carter, meanwhile, said it was unclear whether the House would try a fifth vote Tuesday on reauthorizing the “private option” that was approved last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law.

Speaking at an event in Washington, Beebe said he was optimistic about the private option’s chances despite four failed votes in the House last week. Under the private option, Arkansas' Department of Human Services is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.

Beebe said he hoped the impasse over the private option wouldn’t spark the type of wider budget fight over the health care law that led to the federal government shutdown last year, saying that would backfire for everyone.

“The more realistic possibility is severe and draconian budget cuts in some essential services if it doesn’t pass,” Beebe said at the news conference held by Kaiser Health News and Health Affairs.

Carter appeared to back off his pledge to hold votes every day on the appropriation until it passes, saying it would be a “game-time decision” whether the House takes it up Tuesday. Reauthorizing the private option for another year requires 75 votes in the 100-member chamber; the Senate has already approved the legislation.

“There’s nothing changed on the effort to garnish three-fourths support, but we can’t have that taking up the entire day’s business every day because we’re running out of days,” said Carter, R-Cabot. Carter said he hoped to wrap up the session by March 6.

Arkansas was the first state to win federal approval for the private option, a model that several other Republican-leaning states are exploring as an alternative to traditional Medicaid expansion. More than 87,000 people are receiving subsidized coverage through the program.

Opponents have called for the private option to be pulled out of the human services department’s Medicaid budget bill and considered separately.

“At some point I think we’re going to sit down and talk about what a supermajority of the Legislature can support and not get hung up on the part that we obviously can’t support,” House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said. “We’ve shown four times already that there’s part of that DHS appropriation that doesn’t have a supermajority support.”

The top Democrat in the House, however, dismissed that as an option and said supporters of the legislation aren’t open to any more changes - especially after agreeing to amendments that were aimed at swaying opponents. Those amendments include a prohibition on the state spending any public funds to promote the private option or other parts of the federal health law.

“We’re long past the negotiating stage,” House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said.

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Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Christina Huynh contributed to this report.

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