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House Again Fails To Pass Private Option

LITTLE ROCK — Funding for the so-called private option failed in the House again Wednesday, getting even fewer votes than it had the day before.

The House voted 68-27 on a bill that would appropriate $915 million in federal funding for the program that uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for Arkansans who earn up to 138 percent of the poverty level. It needed 75 votes to pass.

The House had rejected the measure Tuesday in a 70-27 vote. On Thursday the House is expected to take up the bill for the third time and the Senate is expected to consider its matching version of the legislation for the first time.

Senate leaders said earlier this week they appeared to have the 27 votes needed to pass the measure in that chamber after Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, agreed to switch her vote from “no” to “yes” in exchange for concessions in the state workforce education and training program’

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters the Senate will meet earlier in the day than the House, which could improve the measure’s chances in the House.

“For whatever reason, it appears that some members who are opposed to funding it today may change their mind and agree that it’s the right thing to do tomorrow, but only after the Senate votes,” he said. “Now how they arrived at that decision, I don’t have the first clue.”

Gov. Mike Beebe said after the House adjourned Wednesday, “There’s several House members that are waiting on the Senate. That’s the feedback we get. My information is the Senate’s going to vote on it in the morning, so hopefully that’ll clear things up.”

Meanwhile Wednesday, opponents of the private option presented an alternative plan that would stop new enrollments at the end of the fiscal year and leave it up to the 2015 Legislature to determine the program’s future.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, and Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who presented the proposal, said the state would have to receive a waiver from the federal government to cap enrollment at the end of the current fiscal year.

Should the state receive the waiver, those enrolled would remain in the program until the end of March 2015, giving the Legislature, which goes into session in early January, time to determine the future of the program. If the waiver is not approved by the end of June, the entire program would end.

More than 97,000 people have enrolled in the program.

“Nobody here wants to hurt anybody,” Ballinger said during a noon news conference attended by 26 House and Senate members. “What we want to do is to try to make the plan better, but in a way that I think is sustainable and will last a long time.”

Hendren said no one will lose their insurance under the proposal, if the state receives the federal waiver.

“This is probably the most important point for everybody to get out of this discussion,” Hendren said. “Nobody that enrolls or has enrolled … until June 30 is going to lose their insurance until the Legislature comes back in 2015 and readdresses this issue.”

Carter said no more changes to the private option will be considered in the fiscal session, which cannot be extended beyond 45 days. Legislators who want to propose changes should bring them up in the regular session in 2015, he said.

“These are all fun games to play, to have the press conferences and say these are alternatives … but there’s just zero percent possibility that that bill or any of these other ideas at this point in the game are going to receive any support whatsoever,” he said.

Beebe said of the proposal by Ballinger and Hendren, “I don’t know how ending it is any compromise.”

Democrats had been solidly behind the private option previously, but on Wednesday Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Morrilton, did not vote after having voted “yes” Tuesday. Thompson did not immediately return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

Rep. Fred. Smith of Crawfordsville, the Legislature’s only Green Party member, did not vote on Tuesday but voted “yes” on Wednesday.

Reps. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, and Kenneth Bragg, R-Sheridan, voted “yes” on Tuesday but did not vote Wednesday

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