- Associated Press - Friday, January 23, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - While Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made it clear he wants to keep Arkansas’ compromise Medicaid expansion in place through the end of next year, what’s less certain is what happens after that for the thousands receiving health coverage through the program.

Hutchinson’s proposal to reauthorize the “private option” and create a task force to look at health care reforms leaves plenty of unanswered questions about the future of a program providing health insurance to more than 213,000 people. The possibilities range from a similar form of subsidized health coverage to a complete overhaul of the state’s Medicaid system.

“I think it’s just wide open as far as what we’re looking at,” Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said.

Lawmakers could move as quickly as next week on Hutchinson’s proposals. For the private option program, which was crafted two years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, Arkansas is using federal funds to purchase private insurance for residents who would have been eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage.

Hutchinson, a Republican sworn in last week, said he wants the task force to issue its recommendations by the end of this year.

“This gives us stability for the present and an opportunity in the future to create new reform that accomplishes the objective of compassion for those currently being served but looking broadly at how we accomplish that in an affordable way,” he told reporters Thursday.

Hutchinson has noted the benefits of the private option, which hospitals credit for saving them millions by cutting down on the number of uninsured patients seeking care. But he’s also raised concerns about the eventual cost to the state, which begins paying 5 percent of the cost of the expansion in 2017.

The task force would be composed of 16 legislators, including party leaders from the House and Senate under legislation filed Thursday. The proposal calls for the panel to recommend an “alternative health care coverage model” for those currently on the private option and other changes to the Medicaid program. The proposal lists proposals the panel could pursue, including a block grant program where the state receives lump-sum funding from the federal government.

The task force proposal is separate from the budget bill that would continue the private option for another year. Reauthorizing the program requires a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate, a threshold lawmakers barely cleared last year.

Hutchinson faces potential resistance from Republican lawmakers who were elected last year on a vow to kill the program, some of whom have said they want more certainty that the private option won’t continue in some form after Dec. 31, 2016, and a cap on its enrollment.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, who sponsored the task force legislation, said he expects a “pretty wide open process” on looking at options for replacing the private option. He said the proposal makes it clear the private option will come to an end next year.

“There’s no question (the bill) does that,” Hendren, R-Gravette, said. “The only question is what is going to follow that.”


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

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