LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday he disagrees with critics on both the left and the right who say it is inconsistent to support continuing Medicaid expansion in Arkansas while opposing the federal law that funds the program.

LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday he disagrees with critics on both the left and the right who say it is inconsistent to support continuing Medicaid expansion in Arkansas while opposing the federal law that funds the program.


In a news conference at the state Capitol, the Republican governor said he wanted to "debunk" the argument made by some liberal writers and conservative groups that supporting his vision for Medicaid expansion, which he has proposed re-naming Arkansas Works, amounts to an embrace of the federal Affordable Care Act.


"It is perfectly consistent, it is perfectly conservative and logical to oppose Obamacare as a federal policy and yet to accept federal dollars under the Medicaid program in Arkansas," he said.


With a group of state legislators, most of them Republicans, standing behind him, Hutchinson said he has opposed the Affordable Care Act since 2010, the year President Barack Obama signed it into law.


"I was opposed to it because I believed the individual mandate (to obtain health insurance) was wrong in terms of freedom. I believed the employer mandate was wrong in terms of freedom of our workplace in making decisions over health care," he said.


But the law was approved in Washington, not Arkansas, and it has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Hutchinson, who took office last year. He said Arkansas’ leaders at the time the law went into effect "had to pick up the pieces and make the right decisions for the state."


In 2013, the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, approved an alternative to expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls as envisioned in the federal health care law. That alternative, commonly known as the private option, has used federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for more than 200,000 low-income Arkansans and has reduced the state’s uninsured population by more than half.


Hutchinson said Tuesday he continues to support repealing the Affordable Care Act — and replacing it with a new federal policy that would make "an accommodation" for states that have accepted federal dollars for Medicaid expansion.


The governor said ending Medicaid expansion would mean turning down federal money that more than 30 other states are accepting; denying insurance assistance for the poorest Arkansans while receiving it for people higher on the income scale; reversing progress on improving the health of Arkansans; and creating a $100 million hole in the state budget.


"I understand that we in Arkansas and across this nation are all frustrated by what we see happening in Washington — federal intrusion on state prerogatives in terms of health care. But we should not punish Arkansans simply because we are frustrated with Washington," he said.


David Ray, Arkansas director of the conservative group Americans For Prosperity, said in a statement Tuesday, "The governor’s outline for ‘Arkansas Works,’ just like the ‘Private Option,’ relies on Obamacare money to provide a taxpayer-funded entitlement to the exact same population as outlined in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. This is a distinction without a difference, and Arkansas legislators should reject any attempts to cement Arkansas’ status as an Obamacare Medicaid expansion state."


Appropriating a new round of federal funding for Medicaid expansion would require a three-fourths majority vote in each chamber of the state Legislature. Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, one of the legislators who joined Hutchinson in the news conference, said later it is "very premature to even try to counts votes" at this point.


But Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, an opponent of Medicaid expansion, said the votes needed for a three-fourths majority are not there, at least in the 35-member Senate.


"There are nine in the Senate who say, ‘No way. If expansion is part of it, no way,’" he said.


Hutchinson has said he plans to call a special session on Medicaid sometime after the March 1 primary election but has not announced a date.