Thousands of people enrolled in Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion would receive notices that their coverage is ending—even though lawmakers haven't decided the program's future—under a proposal approved Monday by the Senate.
The bill approved by the Senate on a 21-7 vote requires the state to send notifications to people enrolling or renewing their coverage in the state's "private option" that the program is ending Dec. 31, 2016. The proposal heads back to the House for a final vote.
Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. Crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the federal health law, the program has sharply divided Republicans who control the state Legislature.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month signed into law legislation reauthorizing the private option another year while a 16-member legislative task force studies alternatives for covering the more than 200,000 people on the program. Hutchinson has cast the approach as an end to the private option, though it's possible the task force could recommend a form of Medicaid expansion similar or identical to the program.
"It clarifies very clearly for the people what the ending of this health care plan is going to be," Republican Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, who co-sponsored the measure, said after the vote.
Republican Sen. Jim Hendren, who co-chairs the task force, called the proposal "ironic" since it was being backed by lawmakers who complained that the Legislature wasn't ending the private option by creating the task force and reauthorizing its funding.
Hendren, who is also the Senate majority leader, voted for the move but said he didn't believe it was giving a complete picture of what was happening to the program.
"I don't have a problem with notifying people that changes are coming. ... I would prefer it would also say there's a task force looking at what health care's going to look like," Hendren said.
Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram called the notifications a mostly symbolic move, and said he expected the task force to recommend some program to cover the private option enrollees.
"If you're asking whether it's an accurate statement to say it's going to end, I'd say probably not."
State Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe also expressed his concerns about the notifications being sent while the task force conducts its work.
"I understand the intention of the bill, but the fact is we've done a lot to get this task force up and running to really give them the authority they need to address a lot of these issues," he said. "We just feel a lot of these legislative attempts to fix these specific problems muddies the water and we'd prefer to just let the task force get out in front and do what we've asked them to do."
The legislation was approved on a mostly party-line vote, with seven of the Senate's 11 Democrats voting against it.
Hutchinson has called on lawmakers to keep the private option alive through the end of 2016. Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the governor supported the measure, which he said would give enrollees time to prepare.