- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A proposed task force to study alternatives for covering the thousands of people on Arkansas’ compromise Medicaid expansion advanced to a House vote Tuesday, as legislative leaders tried to avoid a bitter fight over the future of the first-in-the-nation program.

The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee endorsed legislation setting up a 16-member task force to come up with recommendations on the future of the state’s Medicaid system, particularly the “private option.” More than 213,000 people are enrolled in the private option, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for those eligible.

The program was crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the federal health law. The House is expected to vote Thursday on the task force and a separate measure reauthorizing the program through June 30, 2016.

Supporters cast the proposal as a way to move past the protracted debate over the private option that has marked the program since it was created two years ago.

“This bill presents good ideas for the task force and gives that task force ideas on how we can reform Medicaid in the state of Arkansas moving forward,” Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Flippin, the committee’s chairman, said as he presented the bill. “Put this argument behind us, put this private option argument behind us and move forward.”

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who was sworn in last month, proposed the task force and has called on lawmakers to continue the private option through the end of next year. The program has sharply divided Republicans, who control the Legislature and have run against President Barack Obama’s health care law.

If approved, the task force would be made up of eight members each from the House and Senate - including the party leaders from both chambers. The panel would be required by the end of this year to issue its recommendations on coverage those currently on the private option and larger changes to Medicaid.

“This is a Medicaid reform bill,” said Rep. Joe Farrer, R-Farrer, a past opponent of the private option who co-sponsored the measure. “This is what we in the Legislature and the state of Arkansas have been pushing for for years.”

The task force proposal faced resistance from some GOP lawmakers who have said they’d prefer ending the private option this year and restrictions on the program’s enrollment. Rep. Josh Miller, who opposed the legislation, said there’s no guarantee the federal government would agree to any reforms recommended by the panel.

“Folks are not very trusting right now, and rightfully so,” Miller, R-Heber Springs, said after the vote. “It’s hard to vote on something when you can’t see in plain English in the bill what’s going to happen.”

The funding measure for the private option will require 75 votes in the 100-member House, a hurdle lawmakers barely cleared last year. The task force bill only requires a simple majority. If reauthorized, the program would face another vote about its future next year, since Arkansas’ constitution requires the state to budget on an annual basis.


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

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