Private option continues to divide Arkansas Republicans


LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ “private option” for extending health insurance to low-income workers was a divisive issue for Republicans during this year’s legislative session and appears likely to remain one going into to the fiscal session that begins in February.

“It’s a problem, and to say it’s not a problem within the Republican ranks is like ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.

Republican legislators were the chief proponents of the private option, the state’s plan to use federal Medicaid money to pay for private insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. But another faction of Republican legislators opposed the plan and remains committed to blocking its implementation.

The divisiveness of the issue was evident in a hearing Friday on a request by King for a legislative audit of the new program. King, who opposed the private option during the session, admitted he had no evidence of wrongdoing but said he wanted auditors to look at spending to date and the enrollment process, which began Oct. 1.

Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, one of the architects of the private option, called the audit a waste of time. Some accused King of trying to derail the program.

“Obviously, from what you have seen today there are lines that have been drawn. I think that it will be an issue in the fiscal session,” Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said after the hearing. “I think it will be very contentious.”

King said in an interview, “There’s talk about delaying, talk about defunding — you know, I think there should be even talk about totally repealing (the private option in the fiscal session). It needs a debate.”

Democratic legislators, meanwhile, solidly support the private option, whatever they may think of the Affordable Care Act. The plan is an alternative to that law’s proposal that states expand their Medicaid rolls.

State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco has used the issue to needle Asa Hutchinson, widely seen as the front-runner in the GOP gubernatorial primary race.

“Asa Hutchinson will not give us a straight answer on how he stands on the private option that Gov. (Mike) Beebe signed and was passed, by the way, by a Republican Legislature,” Insalaco told the Political Animals Club in Little Rock on Wednesday. “Every time he’s asked about it, he ducks and dodges and dives. It’s more like an obstacle course than it is an answer.”

Hutchinson, a former congressman and undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has said he would have signed the private option into law if he had been governor but that he did not believe it would have passed if he had been governor during the session. Asked Friday whether he supports the bill now or favors defunding or repealing it, he said in an email:

“That is a matter that will be resolved in a future legislative session and I do not have a vote. Before I advocate for a particular position, I want all the facts. President Obama and Congress are currently considering changes to Obamacare and those changes may impact the decisions we make in Arkansas. Until these facts are known, and we know whether the website will even become functional, we should keep our options open.”

Former Congressman Mike Ross, currently the only Democrat in the governor’s race, said in an email Friday that although he voted against the Affordable Care Act, he supports the private option, which he called an “Arkansas-specific, bipartisan and market-based solution” that helps working families.

“Arkansas’ private option is a great example of what we can accomplish when we listen to one another and work together in a bipartisan way, and, as governor, I will support the law and its continued funding,” Ross said.

When state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb was asked by reporters Wednesday where he stands on the private option, he said the party will vote on its platform in July and may take it up then, but at this point it has not taken a position for or against it.

“I’m with my fellow representatives and senators — who have both positions,” he joked.

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Arkansas News Bureau reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.