- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers broke a stalemate over the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion Tuesday after Democrats acceded to an unusual plan that’ll require them to initially vote to end the subsidized health insurance for thousands of poor people.

The Joint Budget Committee endorsed a Medicaid budget bill that includes a provision ending the program, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor, on Dec. 31. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll veto that provision, which would allow lawmakers to effectively fund the expansion by upholding his decision with a simple majority vote.

The parliamentary move is aimed at breaking an impasse in the Senate, where the budget bill funding the expansion and the rest of the Medicaid system stalled after failing to get the three-fourths support needed. At least three of the 10 GOP senators opposed to the expansion have said they’ll vote for the Medicaid budget with the defunding provision, despite the governor’s promise to reinstate the program.

“If we do not pass an appropriation for the Department of Human Services, we will have failed in one of our fundamental jobs down here as legislators,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, a Republican from Gravette and a supporter of the expansion plan.

The measure, which heads to a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, advanced after initially facing resistance from Democrats who were wary of voting against a program they want to save. The program was created three years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, and has sharply divided Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature.

“I’m not entirely comfortable with this approach, but I would be a whole lot more uncomfortable if we don’t get this legislation passed,” said Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott. “It wouldn’t just be uncomfortable. It would be a travesty if it doesn’t pass.”

The approach will need the support of nearly all of the Legislature’s Democrats, who came on board with the plan after it was amended to address concerns about potential legal challenges over the governor’s use of a line-item veto to reinstate the program. It also includes a provision to ensure that the entire Medicaid budget isn’t jeopardized if a court rules against Hutchinson’s promised line-item veto.

“Anybody can challenge anything, but I feel like this would withstand scrutiny a lot better,” said House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, a Democrat from Augusta.

If passed by the Senate, the Medicaid budget bill needs House approval before heading to Hutchinson’s desk. Hutchinson has said he believed the line-item veto plan is legal, and said the revised proposal minimized the risk of any lawsuit challenging the approach.

“This has really brought us together, both Democrats and Republicans, as we sought this solution,” Hutchinson said.

Expansion opponents criticized the plan, which they said is an end-run around the state’s budget process that would give the governor too much power in the future.

“Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you will regret it,” Republican Sen. Alan Clark said. “It’ll be clear in years to come what you did.”

Republican Sen. Missy Irvin, who voted to block the Medicaid expansion last week, supported the amended version in committee. Irvin said she remains opposed to the program, but said she can’t control what the governor will do.

“The governor’s made it very clear he wants this program. So if he wants it, he’ll own it,” Irvin said.

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

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