- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The future of Arkansas’ nationally heralded compromise Medicaid expansion remains hazy after voters delivered a mixed verdict in dozens of Republicans contests that had centered on the program in Tuesday’s primary.

Arkansas’ use of federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor - dubbed the “private option” - factored into GOP contests up and down the ballot in Tuesday’s primary. The program’s supporters and opponents watched several key legislative matchups to see whether there will be support for the program when lawmakers convene next year.

Reauthorizing the program next year will require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate, a threshold barely cleared in the Legislature earlier this year.

More than 155,000 people have signed up for the program.

The most high-profile setback for supporters of the program was Sen. Bruce Holland’s defeat by Rep. Terry Rice in west Arkansas’ 9th District. Rice had regularly criticized Holland over his vote for the program, crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the federal health care law.

Rice and other opponents of the program have said the private option was effectively embracing a law that Republicans have derided as “Obamacare.” Rice said he believed Tuesday’s results reflected what he already knew about the private option: that it’s not popular with voters in his district.

“I have not seen anything that changed my belief about the private option expansion of government. I don’t think long term it’s good for state government, the federal government or the economy,” Rice said.

A private option supporter who survived a primary challenge Tuesday night was Sen. Bill Sample, who defeated Jerry Neal. Sample said he believed Tuesday’s results showed voters understood the consequences he said hospitals would face if the state hadn’t enacted the program.

“Private option was everything in my race,” Sample said. “You have to take and explain, be very diligent and explain all the time why you voted for the private option. To me, it’s a no brainer but I think that with the loss we had in Bruce Holland’s race and some of the races in the House, the onus is going to be on the people who are against it to give us some sort of option.”

The private option also led to mixed results in House GOP primaries. Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers, who voted for the private option, survived a primary challenge on Tuesday night, as did private option opponent Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville. Rep. Randy Alexander of Fayetteville, an opponent of the program, lost a primary challenge. Rep. John Hutchison of Harrisburg, who supported the program last year but opposed its reauthorization this year, was defeated in his primary.

The next test for the program will come in the June 10 runoff. Rep. John Burris, an architect of the program, faces private option opponent Scott Flippo in a hotly contested GOP primary for a northern Arkansas state Senate seat.

The November election could also help determine the direction of the program. Democrats, who are united in their support of the private option, believe they have a chance to reclaim the state House. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross has said he supports continuing the private option, while Republican Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll continue to monitor the program and would push for the private option’s end if it didn’t meet the promises.

The incoming leaders of the House and Senate said it’s too early for a headcount on how much support there is for the private option next year, saying they hope most lawmakers will keep an open mind on the program.

“The one thing I don’t want to happen is someone to vote either way without all the information,” said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who will be president of the chamber next year.

House Speaker Designate Rep. Jeremy Gillam said he remained hopeful that lawmakers could avoid the prolonged fight over the private option that lawmakers saw during this year’s session and last year’s. Gillam said he believed that could be avoided by consulting with lawmakers before the Legislature convenes in January.

“Most of everyone has been taking an approach of looking at the data after November and seeing where they’re at and talking with their constituents and seeing where they’re at, and making the call at that point,” said Gillam, R-Judsonia.


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

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