- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Championing a program he inherited under a federal health overhaul he opposes, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made his push to keep Arkansas’ hybrid Medicaid expansion the defining issue in several Republican primary contests next month. He’s also turning the election into a referendum on his first two years in office, and an indicator of how the next two will go.

Hutchinson plunged straight into the March 1 primary challenges that several GOP lawmakers face, dismissing criticism from conservative groups that his plan to keep the expansion amounts to an embrace of the law he and other Republicans have long derided as “Obamacare.”

“It is perfectly consistent, it is perfectly conservative and logical to oppose Obamacare as a federal policy and yet to accept federal dollars under the Medicaid program in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said last week, flanked by about two dozen lawmakers at the state Capitol.

It’s a delicate dance for Hutchinson, who avoided staking a position on the state’s “private option” expansion during his successful campaign for governor and his first several months in office. Crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health overhaul, the program uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.

Hutchinson last year announced he wanted to keep the expansion if the federal government would agree to new restrictions. Hutchinson has said he’ll likely call lawmakers back to the Capitol in early April to take up the reworked program - renamed “Arkansas Works” - and its imposition of premiums on some and its requirement that participants enroll in employer-based plans if they’re available.

The plan continues a tradition of embracing a key part of the health care law Hutchinson opposed. His Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Mike Beebe, said he would have voted against the health overhaul if he had been in Congress but negotiated the hybrid expansion with the Republican-led Legislature three years ago.

Democrats, who have been more unified in supporting the expanded coverage, aren’t shy about pointing out what they view as Hutchinson’s inconsistency at the same time cheering on the Republican governor’s push to keep the plan alive.

“I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen somebody embrace a program and run away from it at the same time,” Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram, a Democrat from West Memphis, said.

The conservative groups that fought Beebe on expansion show no signs of giving Hutchinson a pass on the issue.

“The governor’s outline for ‘Arkansas Works,’ just like the ‘private option,’ relies on Obamacare money to provide a taxpayer-funded entitlement to the exact same population as outlined in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion,” said David Ray, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, which has targeted lawmakers over their past support for the expansion. “This is a distinction without a difference, and Arkansas legislators should reject any attempts to cement Arkansas’ status as an Obamacare Medicaid expansion state.”

After a legislative session where he got nearly everything he wanted, the primary election will be the first test of how much pull Hutchinson has within his party. The results could also sway some undecided lawmakers in his fight to get the three-fourths vote necessary to keep the program alive another year.

“If we do not work to get the truth out to the Arkansas voters, then yes, we’re not going to make that three-fourths margin because legislators listen to the voters,” he said.

Even more is riding on the line for Hutchinson, who’s warned that dropping the expanded coverage would create a $100 million budget deficit. It’s a gap that he says could threaten other state services and his plan to tap into general revenue and surplus funds to boost money for the state’s highway system. Losing allies in the Legislature on his health plan could be an omen of tougher battles in the coming two years.

That prospect is what has put Hutchinson, who campaigned partly on a vow to fight the president, in the position of warning lawmakers against ending coverage just to make a political point.

“Let’s make the best decision now for Arkansas. As federal policy changes, we will adjust accordingly,” Hutchinson told lawmakers last week. “As powerful and as determined as we are, we cannot change federal health care policy by simply being stubborn.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo


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