LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas has received approval from the federal government to proceed with the so-called “private option” for providing health care coverage to the state’s working poor, Gov. Mike Beebe announced Friday.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius phoned Beebe on Friday morning to inform him that the agency has approved the federal waiver needed to implement the private option, according to a statement issued by the governor’s office.
“Arkansas came up with its own plan to expand Medicaid using the private insurance market, and Secretary Sebelius and her team worked to ensure that we had the flexibility to make that plan a reality,” Beebe said. “Our actions have drawn positive attention from across the country, and now we will focus on getting this insurance to the Arkansans who need it to lead healthier, more productive lives.”
Arkansas’ plan, approved by the state Legislature this year, is to use federal Medicaid money to pay for more than 200,000 Arkansans living near or below the federal poverty line to buy insurance through the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace.
The federal Affordable Care Act proposed that states expand their Medicaid rolls to include people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, but Arkansas has chosen instead to provide private insurance for that population. The federal government will pay the full cost for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost will increase gradually to 10 percent.
Beebe and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate supported the plan, though a number of Republican legislators opposed it. A citizen initiative to repeal the private option was proposed earlier this year by a conservative activist but failed to garner enough signatures to get on the November 2014 ballot.
Some Republican legislators have said they will seek to block funding the private option during next year’s fiscal legislative session, including House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs.
“I still believe it’s too expensive and it doesn’t accomplish the reforms I would like to see for the Medicaid system,” Westerman said Friday.
Beebe said Friday in his weekly column and radio address, “Unfortunately, there are still some who remain politically motivated to try to crash this new system and root for its failure. In Arkansas, we will stay focused on the health of our people and the financial well-being of our state.”
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said Friday he was pleased that the state received the waiver. He said everything appeared to be coming together to make the private option work, though he added that “there’s not a lot of room for error, so we have to bat 1,000.”
Asked about legislative opposition in the upcoming fiscal session, Carter said he believed the support the private option received in this year’s regular session would still be there next year.
“I don’t see any real reason for anyone who supported it in the past to change their position at this point,” he said.
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, one of the leading proponents of the private option, said Friday there is still work to do on the waiver. Department of Human Services officials will work with the federal government to add amendments to the waiver so it fully corresponds to the enabling legislation for the private option that the state Legislature approved, he said.
He compared the process to building a house.
“This is certainly the foundation and the framing. Now we have to start putting some Sheetrock on the walls, taking the colors, getting it operational and making it the house that it’s supposed to be,” he said.
In Washington, meanwhile, Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act has led to a budget standoff that threatens to shut down the federal government. Beebe said Friday of the private option, “Hopefully, this bipartisan, intergovernmental achievement can be an example for Congress as the government shutdown looms.”
About 500,000 Arkansans are expected to buy insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace. Enrollment begins Tuesday, with coverage to begin Jan. 1. Under the Affordable Care Act, nearly all Americans are required to have health insurance starting in January.
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