- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers got their first look Thursday at legislation outlining Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to keep and rework the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion and to have private companies manage services for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill.

Legislative leaders began distributing the draft bill for Hutchinson’s proposed changes to the expansion, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. The Republican governor wants to rename the program “Arkansas Works.” The Legislature is expected to convene for a special session on the plan April 6.

The 13-page bill mirrors the proposals Hutchinson has detailed before the Legislature, including a plan to require participants making more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level to pay a premium equal to 2 percent of their income. It would also require participants 21 and older to enroll in their employers’ health insurance if available, with the program paying premiums and co-pays.

“It’s certainly going to allow people to make more informed decisions about whether they can or cannot support it,” said Republican Sen. Jim Hendren, who co-chairs a task force studying the program.

More than 250,000 people are on the program, currently known as the private option, which was crafted three years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law. The program has sharply divided Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature.

Opponents say they’re not swayed by the changes Hutchinson’s offering.

“The reality is other than ending the enrollment and stopping the program, there’s nothing that’s going to satisfy (opponents),” said Republican Sen. Bart Hester, who said he won’t support the plan.

Another bill details Hutchinson’s plan to have the state contract with private companies to manage some Medicaid services. The proposal calls for some of the projected savings from the managed care proposal to be used to cut down on the waiting list on services for the developmentally disabled.

The legislation also details a “bill of rights” for Medicaid patients and providers aimed at preventing the managed care firms from reducing services or benefits. It would also prevent the firms from paying providers less than the prevailing Medicaid fee schedule, unless mutually agreed upon.

Legislative leaders also distributed a competing proposal from opponents of the managed care plan that would instead have private firms coordinate services for the developmentally disabled. Unlike the managed care plan, the state would still pay providers directly under that proposal.

The top Democrat in the House said members of his caucus were encouraged that the managed care proposal would be considered separately from the expansion plan, but said members are still wary of some of the restrictions sought.

“There are still people that were wholeheartedly supportive of the private option that still have some questions with Arkansas Works,” House Minority Leader Michael John Gray said.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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