- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Gov. Asa Hutchinson defended his plan to keep Arkansas’ hybrid Medicaid expansion on Tuesday, dismissing criticism being leveled against some fellow Republicans facing primary challenges that it amounts to an embrace of the federal health overhaul.

A day before he was expected to detail his plans to overhaul and rename the state’s “private option” expansion, Hutchinson warned that ending the expanded coverage would create a gap of at least $100 million in Arkansas’ budget. Crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the health overhaul, the private option uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.

Hutchinson said he still supports repealing the health care law that enabled the program, but that Arkansas shouldn’t turn down the funding for the expanded coverage to make a political point.

“I hope that Washington replaces Obamacare, but until then we would only be punishing Arkansas to turn down federal money that 30-plus states are accepting,” Hutchinson said at a Capitol news conference flanked by about two dozen lawmakers. “It is perfectly consistent, it is perfectly conservative and logical to oppose Obamacare as a federal policy and yet to accept federal dollars under the Medicaid program in Arkansas.”

Hutchinson said his remarks were aimed at critics on the right and left, but they come as several lawmakers are fending off challenges in the March 1 primary that are centered on the expansion. Conservative groups Americans for Prosperity and Conduit for Commerce have been targeting several lawmakers over the issue.

“This is a distinction without a difference, and Arkansas legislators should reject any attempts to cement Arkansas’s status as an Obamacare Medicaid expansion state,” said David Ray, state director for Americans for Prosperity.

Hutchinson has proposed renaming the expansion “Arkansas Works” and wants to add new restrictions to its eligibility and benefits. He’s expected on Wednesday to detail to lawmakers his negotiations with federal officials to overhaul the program.

The expansion has sharply divided Republicans, who control the House and Senate, since its creation in 2013. Keeping the program another year will require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate, and Hutchinson said he hasn’t begun counting votes on the proposal. The governor plans to call a special session after the March primary to take up the expansion plan.

“If we do not work to get the truth out to the Arkansas voters, then yes, we’re not going to make that three-fourths margin because legislators listen to the voters,” he said.

Democrats, who have been more unified in their support of the expansion, have expressed reservations about adding more restrictions to the program. One Democratic lawmaker said he disagreed with Hutchinson trying to separate the expansion from the health law debate, but was sympathetic to the divide Hutchinson faces in his own party.

“I do not think it’s an accurate statement but I understand the positioning and why the statement is being made,” said Rep. Eddie Armstrong, a Democrat from North Little Rock.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ademillo

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