LITTLE ROCK — Speaking at a rally at the Capitol on Thursday in support of expanding health care coverage, Gov. Mike Beebe asked two legislators, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, to stand beside him.
Standing between Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, and Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, the governor spoke on the importance of bipartisan cooperation in the Legislature.
"They’ve got to be able to work together, they’ve got to be able to listen to each other. They can disagree, but they’ve got to do it agreeably, and they’ve got to figure out a way to work together," he said.
The presence of members of both major parties at the rally illustrated how much has changed in the debate over extending health insurance coverage to Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Republican resistance in the Legislature has shown signs of lessening since Beebe’s recent announcement of a so-called "private option," which would allow the state to use mostly federal dollars to subsidize private insurance for low-income Arkansans instead of adding them to the Medicaid rolls.
Thursday’s rally was held by the AR Health + AR Jobs Coalition, which includes more than 35 groups that support expanding health care coverage.
Beebe urged the coalition members to seek out their senators and representatives at the Capitol and ask them to support expansion. He said Arkansans will pay, through their federal tax dollars, for expansion in other states even if the Legislature rejects it for Arkansas.
"I don’t want to leave our people out," he said.
Dismang said Democrats and Republicans are working together on the issue. He said that when Republicans won majorities in the House and Senate in November, some expected Washington-style gridlock, but that has not happened.
"We are showing the country how people should work together as they lead in the legislative branch," he said.
Dismang did not endorse expansion or predict whether GOP legislators would support it.
"The only thing I’m willing to handicap is that we’re going to do our job," he said. "We’re going to gather information that we need and we’re going to make an intelligent decision that is best for Arkansans, best for the future health care of this great state, and we’re going to make it proud."
Beebe told reporters after the rally that the state has been inundated with inquiries from other states’ governors about the deal offered to Arkansas.
Asked whether he expects an agreement on expansion, Beebe said he is "cautiously optimistic that it’s moving in the right direction, but everybody’s got to be sensitive to one another and answer everybody’s questions."
The issue of whether all those questions can be answered during the current session came up Thursday during a discussion in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Murdock, the committee’s vice chairman, said he does not believe that all of legislators’ questions are going to be answered before the end of the session.
"A decision at the end of the day is going to have to be made as to, do we have enough information, or is that information (going to) suffice to those that have questions to say, OK, we got something that we believe is a deal that’s good enough that we can go ahead and work forward?"
Murdock noted that if the state chooses either option, the federal government will pay all expansion costs for the first three years. After that, the state’s share of the cost will gradually increase to 10 percent.
"Until we’re able to look back at the end of this three-year period and see what has happened to actual costs, actual episodes, the outcomes, whatever happens, that’s going to be our real data. Right now we’re dealing with a lot of forecasting and speculation," Murdock said.
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, the committee’s chairman, said lawmakers will take as much time as they need to reach a decision.
"Fools rush in, and we’re not going to rush in to what is a fundamental revision of health care policy in the state," he said.
Talking to reporters later, Burris said that if a policy can be created that is conservative, market-based, consumer-friendly, revenue-neutral and sustainable in the long term, "we can have a vote and get the votes."
He said reaching a decision before the end of the session is everyone’s goal, but reaching a decision later in the year in a special session is a possibility. Beebe has said that holding a special session would be an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
"We’re not going to be penny wise and pound foolish," Burris said. "It’s silly to say the cost of a special session is too high. That’s completely not even a serious argument. We’re talking about billions and billions of (Medicaid) dollars. The cost of a special session is thousands."