LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas said Thursday it supports a proposal to provide private insurance coverage to low-income Arkansans.
"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, president and CEO of the State Chamber/AIA, said in a news release.
"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," he said. "This action will also ensure that Arkansas businesses are not hit with a de facto tax increase from fines that would apply if the state does not move ahead on this issue."
The Arkansas Department of Human Services announced Wednesday that the state could save $670 million over a 10-year period under the plan being considered by the Legislature.
The agency released the new figures a little over a week after announcing that the cost to the federal government of the so-called "private option" for expanding health care coverage would be less than 15 percent higher than the cost of the original proposal under the federal Affordable Care Act, which was for the state to add people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to the state Medicaid rolls.
Arkansas has received preliminary approval from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to use Medicaid expansion dollars in a different way that allows for low-income Arkansans to receive health coverage via private insurance.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said he was pleased with the endorsement and said the Legislature’s goal is to end the session by mid-April with a health care expansion plan in place.
"It’s helpful," he said. "We’re trying to go home and it’s time for all hands on deck to help us get home."
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said the endorsement "can’t hurt," but he said he was more encouraged by DHS’ estimate of the potential savings.
"Sure it helps, but more important to me is what those numbers said. I thought that was huge. That’s extremely good news," he said.
Republican House Caucus leader Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, who advocates considering health care expansion in a special session later, said Thursday the endorsement made no difference to him. He said he is concerned about the cost to the federal government, which he said the chamber may not have considered.
"If you look at it strictly (with) blinders for the state, then I think they’ve made the right decision. That’s what’s best for the state of Arkansas — if you take any kind of federal effect out of it."
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, said the endorsement "doesn’t mean anything."
"There’s organizations that lobby for their own self-interest," Burris said. "That’s very normal. That’s all that’s at the Capitol, and I don’t blame them for that. But I think the Legislature that’s here has the appropriate mindset, that we’re setting policy for all 3 million Arkansans, not any particular interest group or lobby."