- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Months after Arkansas lawmakers avoided another protracted fight over the future of the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion, the nation’s highest court could throw the Legislature back into an all-too-familiar debate over a key part of the federal health care law.

With the U.S. Supreme Court set to rule any day now on whether to continue subsidies for people in Arkansas and 33 other states that haven’t set up their own insurance exchange, Arkansas lawmakers are bracing for the possibility of a special legislative session over a law that’s divided them for the past several years.

“This is sort of like Groundhog Day,” Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram, a Democrat from West Memphis, referring to the 1993 comedy where a man relives the same day over and over again. This time, it’s the Legislature reliving the same debate over and over again.

Justices are deciding a lawsuit brought by conservatives who argue the health insurance subsidies should be limited to states operating their own insurance marketplaces, and is not allowed for the roughly three dozen that use the federal HealthCare.gov website.

Arkansas was given conditional approval last week to transition to a state-based exchange, but legislation enacted earlier this year puts the final decision in lawmakers’ hands if the high court sides with conservatives in the subsidies case.

“If the rules change, the Legislature ought to have an opportunity to weigh in on what’s the best path for Arkansas,” said Republican Sen. Jim Hendren, the Senate majority leader who sponsored the legislation putting the decision back into lawmakers’ hands if the Obama administration loses the case.

That possibility puts a new wrinkle in the looming debate over another part of the health overhaul. Lawmakers avoided a renewed fight over the future of the “private option,” the initiative using federal Medicaid expansion money to purchase private insurance for the poor, when they voted to renew the program another year while a task force looks at its future.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson hasn’t said what he thinks the state should do if the court sides with opponents for the health care law, and it would ultimately be up to the Republican governor to decide whether to convene a special session. A spokesman said the governor wants to review the ruling first and isn’t currently considering a special session.

With aid for tens of thousands of Arkansans on the line, such a session would be marked by the type of divisive debate that Hutchinson sought to avoid in his first session as governor. He’ll be stuck between Ingram and others who say the state can’t ignore those who would lose coverage if the state doesn’t set up its exchange, and many fellow Republicans who aren’t eager to embrace the health law they’ve spent the past three election cycles blasting.

It’ll offer a glimpse of the divide the Legislature may face next year as it takes up recommendations for covering the more than 200,000 people currently on the private option.

Legislative leaders say they’re approaching the looming decision carefully before saying how they want to approach it.

“Patience is going to be the key,” House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, a Republican from Judsonia, said last week. “Seeing what the decision is, what the nuances are of that decision and then dealing with that.”

Senate President Jonathan Dismang said the Legislature will also look to Congress if the subsidies for Arkansas and the other 33 states are at risk.

“What we hope is … our counterparts in Washington would be able to come up with a solution and provide some guidance rather than just punting to the states,” the Republican from Beebe said.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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