LITTLE ROCK — A Senate panel on Wednesday endorsed a proposed private option for expanding health care coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, sponsor of Senate Bill 1020, said the measure will be presented to the Senate on Friday.
The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee endorsed the measure with little discussion after it was presented by Dismang.
"It was just an introduction of the bill, where we are and where we’re going … and the issue itself," Dismang said later, adding that lawmakers were provided a copy of the bill Tuesday afternoon.
"There was a lot of discussion throughout (Tuesday) night with regard to the bill, so most of the members were at least comfortable with the content of the bill, maybe not with what their position will be, but comfortable with the content, and so that expedited what we did in committee," he said.
Dismang said he expected a number of different people to be on the Senate floor Friday when the Senate meets in a "committee of the whole" to discuss the bill. Senators will vote on the bill after they have had the opportunity to ask all questions they want, he said.
"We want to have sufficient time to answer any questions," he said. "It’s our goal … to make sure that every member has all the information they want in front of them."
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, has filed a matching bill, House Bill 1143. Burris said Wednesday he did not expect to present his bill in committee this week.
Also Wednesday, the Arkansas chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which opposes the federal health care reform law known as Obamacare, announced its opposition to the private option that the Obama administration has offered to Arkansas.
Under the option, the state would use federal Medicaid dollars to pay the premiums for Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to buy private insurance plans through the state insurance exchange instead of adding those people to the Medicaid rolls.
The federal government would pay the full cost for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost would gradually increase to 10 percent.
"It is clear that President Obama’s administration is not interested in reforming a broken (Medicaid) program. They are interested only in expanding a broken program," Teresa Oelke, Arkansas director of AFP, said in the statement.
Burris said the group has "legitimate concerns" and that those concerns will be on legislators’ minds as they continue to work on the legislation.
"I think we’re all concerned about the spending, making sure this is structured in a way that reduces out-of-control growth in federal and state entitlement spending. That’s the goal," he said.
House Speaker Davy Cater, R-Cabot, who has been urging House members to vote for the private option, said he disagrees with AFP.
"We’ve changed the situation into something fundamentally different from what it was, and I think we’re going to set forth a private option plan in Arkansas that’s good for Arkansas and good for the citizens," he said.
SB 1020 and HB 1143 include language requiring a person enrolled in the program to "affirmatively acknowledge" that the program is subject to cancellation and requiring the state Department of Human Services to develop a pilot program allowing a limited number of enrollees to participate in health savings accounts.
The legislation also requires the Legislature to revisit the proposal in 2017, and includes a provision that would end the program if the federal funding falls below certain percentages. It also requires the state to seek federal approval to move some children and adults on Medicaid to the insurance exchange.
In a meeting with legislators last week, DHS Director John Selig discussed a recent report, commissioned by the state Insurance Department, which estimated that the private option could save Arkansas $670 million over 10 years.
Selig said analysts also estimated that the cost to the federal government of the private option would be 2.81 percent less than the cost to expand the state Medicaid program.
"It will actually be cheaper to have people in the private-sector market rather than have them on Medicaid — cheaper for the federal government — because we would have had to raise Medicaid rates if we put all these people on Medicaid just to get them served. And there’s some assumption that the private market will be a little more efficient than Medicaid would be," he said.