Gov. Mike Beebe signed into law legislation that will allow Arkansas to use federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for thousands of low-income residents. (Photo: Steve Payne, THV 11)
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe on Tuesday signed into law a plan to use federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income workers, and state officials said they will now work to get final federal approval for the proposal.
The Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders both touted the "private option" as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health care law. Beebe signed the measure as lawmakers wrapped up this year's legislative session.
"Our work is just beginning," Beebe said after signing the plan into law. "There's a lot of i-dotting, t-crossing and follow ups that have to occur."
Under the new law, Arkansas would accept the money allocated for Medicaid expansion under the federal health care law, but would use it instead to buy private insurance for about 250,000 eligible low-income residents. Those individuals who earn up to 138 percent of the poverty line - or $15,415 per year - would purchase subsidized private insurance through the state's insurance exchange.
The next step for the state will be getting federal approval for the plan. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has endorsed the private option concept, but stopped short of giving the state final approval to go ahead with it.
Arkansas Human Services Director John Selig said state officials plan to travel to Washington in the next couple of weeks to talk about the new law and they hope to submit a waiver for the private option in the next couple of months.
"The legislation is pretty clear that there are key components that have to be a part of this," Selig told reporters. "The federal government understands that. I don't think there'll be any surprises so we don't think it's going to be anything that causes them great shock."
The private option proposal sharply divided legislative Republicans, who won control of both chambers in November for the first time since Reconstruction, partly by vowing to fight the federal health care law at the state level.
GOP supporters of the idea described it as a conservative approach to reforming Medicaid and a way to help businesses avoid penalties under the federal health law for not providing insurance to employees. Opponents described it as no different from the Medicaid expansion called for under the federal law.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, one of key proponents of the private option, said lawmakers will continue to monitor the program and its implementation as the feds review the proposal.
"It's not anything at all that we're going to let our hands off of," said Dismang, R-Beebe. "We understand the distinction between the legislative and the executive branch, but this was a policy that originated in the legislative body and to the best of our ability we're going to maintain control of it and make sure the final product is what was envisioned."
The idea had also split members of the state's congressional delegation, with Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford urging members to oppose the plan. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, on Tuesday praised the private option law.
"I commend Republicans and Democrats for working together to improve access to healthcare and using the funding provided through the Affordable Care Act to benefit the people and economy of Arkansas," Pryor said in a statement released by his office.
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(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)