LITTLE ROCK — With the Beebe administration looking to spend federal money on a planned health insurance exchange, resistance remains among legislators over implementing federal health care reform in Arkansas despite a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law.
The Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee voted Wednesday to endorse the state Insurance Department’s proposed $84.5 million budget for the next fiscal year after defeating an amendment that would have removed a $7.67 million federal grant intended to help educate Arkansans about a federally run health-insurance pool.
"It is of interest to me that we said here in this committee room that we were going to wait until after the Supreme Court ruling," to consider implementing a state health care exchange, said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, noting the high court upheld the federal Affordable Care Act last summer.
"We said then we’re going to wait until after the election and the election is over," Chesterfield said. "Now we have an opportunity — correct me if I’m wrong, with the federal money — to make this clearer to the constituents that we serve. This is not about putting the exchange into operation, this is about providing an opportunity for people to understand what is going to … be a federal, federal-state or a state exchange."
Rep. Jason Rapert, D-Conway, proposed removing the grant funding from the agency budget, saying his constituents oppose the health insurance exchange and he wants the full Legislature to vote on the issue during the regular legislative session that begins Jan. 14.
"The Legislature never yet has spoken on that issue, and from where I stand my constituents still, the vast majority, loudly tell me do not proceed," he said.
Rapert said just 18 of the 50 states have approved plans to implement exchanges.
"What I read, the federal government is responsible to do this, so I’m not going to continue to throw tax money toward this project when my constituents don’t want it," Rapert said.
State Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford told reporters after the vote to approve his agency’s budget, with the federal funding, that the $7 million will be used to "educate the citizens of the state of Arkansas with how to access the federal insurance exchange and to assist them in doing so and to explain the options that are available."
Bradford said his department has been receiving calls from Arkansans wanting more information about the exchange options and the grant would help fund the education program.
"It’s a giant leap as far as the delivery of health insurance in Arkansas," he said. "It is very necessary to help our people go through this process in getting on the federal exchange.
"Without this, they would be left to the whims of the federal government and they would take over that project and it’s basically sometimes described as a one-size fits all federal process," he said.
Last week, Gov. Mike Beebe said he planned to pursue a partnership with the federal government to run the exchange. He said last month he was taking another look at the possibility of a state-run system but Republicans did not warm to the idea after the Obama administration extended the deadline for states to decide.