LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The incoming speaker of the Arkansas House said Friday that he hoped next year to avoid the “drama” that marked the debate over continuing the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion during this year’s legislative session.
During a panel discussion with other lawmakers about the state’s “private option” and its future, House Speaker-Designate Rep. Jeremy Gillam said he believed lawmakers should consult over the coming months and avoid a repeat of the protracted fight over the program. The Legislature reauthorized the private option, which uses federal Medicaid funds to purchase private health insurance for the poor, but the program’s future was in doubt after repeated failed votes before the House.
Gillam, R-Judsonia, was elected on Wednesday to lead the House in next year’s session.
“If it’s working and the membership is all in agreement that it’s working, hopefully with everyone being able to get their questions answered and they’ll have their input as we go into it, we won’t see as much drama as we may have in the past,” Gillam told members of the Political Animals Club, which meets regularly to hear from elected officials and other political figures.
Nearly 98,000 people are receiving subsidized health coverage through the program, and it’s expected to eventually provide coverage to about 250,000 people. Arkansas was the first state to receive federal approval for such a model, crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s federal health law.
The top Democrat in the House said he expected another fight over the program when funding comes up again next year, but said the enrollments the state has seen will help the case for keeping the private option alive.
“So it will be that much more difficult for us to pull the plug,” House Minority Leader Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said. “It’s important to keep that in mind that the ultimate goal is keeping these quarter of a million Arkansans insured. But I do anticipate a challenge.”
One of the lawmakers who helped craft the private option law said the next steps will be enacting other parts of the program. The funding measure included a provision requiring the federal government to approve key changes to the private option by early next year.
“The struggle will be to keep it on the tracks, to make it continue to be implemented and unfolded in a way that certainly the architects and supporters, those of us who worked on it, intended,” said Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock.
Democrats, however, vented frustration about one of those changes, an effort to scale back the use of Medicaid-funded nonemergency transportation for private option recipients.
“I hope that we will come up with a plan because we have many families that have a car that has to act as the conduit for two, three, four, five people and at the end of the day people don’t have that travel accessibility,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock. “That’s why I don’t like, I still don’t like it but the question is, do you give up everything because of the one thing?”
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