LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel Friday ordered an audit of the state’s fledgling program for expanding health care to low-income Arkansans under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The Legislative Joint Auditing Committee approved a request for the audit during an often contentious meeting in which one member called President Obama a liar and another charged state auditors were being used in a plan to derail Arkansas’ so-called private option.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, a co-chairman of the audit panel, requested the audit, though he acknowledged he had no indication of wrongdoing in the program that began enrollment Oct. 1.
King said he wanted state auditors to look at the enrollment process and spending so far on the plan to spend Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for people who otherwise would be added to the state’s Medicaid rolls.
One of the architects of the private option, Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, grudgingly accepted the audit but called it a waste of time.
“I don’t … object to this. I just think it’s pretty poor use of staff time,” Burris said, adding that questions now being raised were discussed during the legislative session earlier this year and addressed in the Medicaid waiver the state received from the federal government to move forward with the program.
“If someone is not aware of that, I can only assume they did not read the waiver. That has been public information for more than three months,” Burris said. “If we want to audit those things that are publicly disseminated and widely available and should have been read … I won’t object, I just think it’s a pretty poor waste of time.”
But Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, insisted more questions needed to be answered about he program. He said he wanted to know more about the automatic assignment of insurance plans, and about the demographics of those who have enrolled.
The automatic assignment provision allows the state to select a plan for applicants who enroll but fail to select a plan themselves within 12 days. Once they are assigned a plan they have 30 days to decide whether they want to keep the plan or go with another.
Of the 49,151 people who had enrolled in the program by Tuesday, 40,405 had been auto-assigned by the state, according to the state Department of Human Services.
Harris said some lawmakers who have jobs outside the Legislature were not as closely involved in developing the private option during the regular session, an apparent jab at Burris, whose only job at the time was serving in the Legislature. Now constituents are asking questions they can’t answer, he said.
“Now we’re hearing lies and different things by President Obama,” Harris added. “We have people who are no longer being covered … now we’re having to answer these questions. So if we can’t answer these questions, then we’re going to have a big issue at home.”
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, objected to Harris’ comment.
“I want to take an undiluted exception to the representative who suggested (that) now the president is telling lies,” Elliott said. “I don’t care what you think about the president, you should not get on the mic and start saying a president is telling lies when you don’t have anything to back it up. I know what you are talking about, and I know what the big spin is out there, but you ought to be above that kind of language.”
While discussing the need for the audit later, Harris agreed that political comments about the president should remain outside the committee room.
At another point in Friday’s meeting, Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, questioned King’s motives in requesting the audit.
“As you being a viable opponent against this initiative, this law, then now you have an opportunity to cause some doubt prior to the fiscal session,” Murdock said. “I mean, you know it’s a hotly debated issue and with talk of some things that have happened in Washington, and some challenges that we are facing in implementation, now this appears to be piling on by someone that was obviously against it.”
Murdock noted that the fiscal session begins Feb. 10 and that Roger Norman, director of the state Division of Legislative Audit, said earlier in the meeting that he did not know how long the audit would take.
“Are we setting up for the fiscal session to say, ‘well the audit is not even in yet, we don’t know what is going to happen next, so we really need to freeze on this?’”
King said his goal was to gather information on enrollment and spending during the first month of the program.
“This is not a witch hunt,” he said, adding he has no reason to question information from the state Department of Human Services or the state Insurance Department. He just wants auditors to verify the information.
The committee voted down a motion by another architect of the private option, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, to refer the audit request to the panel’s Medicaid Subcommittee to refine its scope.
Dismang said he was concerned that the proposal was vague and open-ended.
“When we make the request of audit, we set the scope we want them to be looking at,” Dismang said. “I’m fine with moving forward if someone can define to me what we are doing, rather than just a blanket theory.”
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, a key player in developing the private option and chairman of the Medicaid Subcommittee, said he would welcome a chance to refine the inquiry.
“This is fine to look at, in fact this is good,” Sanders said. “I am supportive of the motion … I don’t think we are harmed in any way when we as a body provide oversight or ask questions.”
The committee rejected the referral in an 11-14 vote, with 13 votes needed for passage.
The panel endorsed the audit request on a voice vote.
DHS Director John Selig said after the meeting his agency would make all information available to state auditors, and he said an audit would not hinder the insurance application process.