- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross vowed Friday to protect the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion, while Republican rival Asa Hutchinson said he believed data should drive the debate on the program next year.

Speaking separately to a group of leaders from the Mississippi River Valley Delta, the two candidates addressed the future of the state’s “private option” two days after a lawmaker who helped craft the program was defeated in a Republican runoff election. Republican Rep. John Burris’ loss in the state Senate race could jeopardize the future of the program, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.

More than 172,000 people have enrolled in the program, which was crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s federal health law.

“As a Christian, I think it’s the right thing to do and I’m going to do my best as governor to continue to fund it,” Ross told members of the Delta Grassroots Caucus.

Hutchinson said his position hasn’t changed since Burris’ defeat, saying he’ll evaluate the progress of the private option before deciding whether to push for its reauthorization next year.

Hutchinson said he was optimistic the Legislature “will do the right thing in terms of making the adjustments that are needed to reflect the values of Arkansas to make sure this program is an incentive for people to work and not an incentive for people to not work.”

Reauthorizing the program next year will require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate, a threshold the Legislature barely cleared earlier this year. Burris was defeated in Tuesday’s runoff by Scott Flippo, who had campaigned on a vow to defund the expansion program.

Hutchinson said hospitals and those on the program need some certainty about its future.

“I hope we can come up with a consensus that eliminates some of the drama,” he told reporters. “Whether you’re talking about our hospitals or the 150,000 enrolled in this, we need to have some consistency and consensus on the direction we’re going in the future so they can rely upon it.”

Ross said he was optimistic the private option would ultimately survive, saying he believed the rhetoric that marked the Burris-Flippo race wouldn’t be as dominant.

“I think at the appropriate time at the end of the day, I think a lot of the political rhetoric will subside and people will do the right thing and renew funding for the private option,” Ross said.

The two spoke at the second day of a two day conference that featured other candidates for statewide and congressional office.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor told the group he would continue pushing for funding for the Delta Regional Authority, which was created to assist the 252 counties in the eight-state region.

Pryor’s Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, a day earlier defended his vote for a budget that would have eliminated the DRA and other regional commissions. Cotton said he didn’t believe taxpayers were getting a good return on their investment for such agencies.

Pryor criticized Cotton’s position as out of touch, saying the projects funded by DRA help lead to private investment in the area.

“There’s a big multiplier effect for the state of Arkansas and I’m sure the entire Delta region,” Pryor told reporters.


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