Arkansas’ largest business lobbying organization backed a proposal to provide subsidized health insurance to thousands of low-income residents, a move that could help win over lawmakers skeptical of the alternative to expanding the state’s Medicaid program.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas said it was backing the so-called private option proposal currently being considered by lawmakers.
“Arkansas has a unique and special opportunity to help address health care coverage needs for low-income Arkansans through a private insurance model,” Randy Zook, the group’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Our hope is that by increasing enrollment in the private insurance market and encouraging competition in the health insurance marketplace, we will see more Arkansans obtain health care coverage and ultimately lower costs for those services.”
Gov. Mike Beebe last month announced that the federal government had given the state permission to adopt the private insurance approach rather than expanding Medicaid’s enrollment. Under the private option proposal, low-income citizens – those who make up to 138 percent of the poverty line, which amounts to $15,415 per year – would receive private insurance purchased using federal Medicaid dollars. The insurance would be purchased through the exchange created under the federal health care law.
Republicans, who won control of the state Legislature last year partly on opposition to the federal health care overhaul, had generally opposed Medicaid expansion. Many GOP lawmakers, however, have backed the private insurance idea as a better approach. The proposal will require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate.
The chamber represents about 1,300 businesses from around the state. It had not taken a position on the Medicaid expansion proposal.
Beebe, a Democrat, said he was pleased with the group’s support for the insurance proposal and said he believed it would help in winning support from the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“They’re a credible organization. They analyzed it and their conclusion was the same as my conclusion and I’m grateful for that conclusion,” Beebe said.
But Rep. John Burris, who chairs the House Public Health Committee, said the Chamber’s endorsement would not have any impact on the Medicaid debate.
“There’s been a variety of interest groups that have lobbied for Medicaid expansion throughout this entire process,” said Burris, R-Harrison. “Despite the continual pressure, the Legislature showed due diligence in waiting and I think that’s yielded positive results, so I don’t’ think many legislators are going to be affected by outside pressure now because it proved to be wrong before.”
Burris said Republicans likely would put forward a bill next week that outlines their private option proposal even as they wait for the federal government to give written permission for the plan.
“We still don’t even have written approval to do the entire thing we’re talking about,” he said. “We’ve designed it on word of mouth.”
Beebe has said the savings from the expansion could pay for a substantial amount of tax cuts that Republican lawmakers are pushing for this year. Zook called the possibility of more tax cuts an indirect benefit, but said it wasn’t the primary reason for the group backing the insurance expansion.
Associated Press Writer Michael Stratford contributed to this report