Legislators in both the House and the Senate voted to advance Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Works legislation Thursday, though the margins were not big enough to guarantee passage in a fiscal session that begins April 13.
Needing only simple majorities, the bill passed, 25-10 in the Senate and 70-30 in the House. Because funding mechanisms in the fiscal session require a three-fourths majority, that means it was two votes short in the Senate and five votes short in the House if policy support equates to funding support.
The companion bills must be approved in the opposite chambers Friday before being signed into law by Hutchinson.
Arkansas Works would alter the private option, which is the government program where the state uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. The poverty level is $11,880 in a household size of one. Created in 2013, the private option expires at the end of this year. As of the end of January, 267,590 Arkansans were eligible to receive insurance.
Arkansas Works changes the private option by adding several stipulations, including:
– Enhancing work and work training referrals for people who benefit from the program
– Requiring those beneficiaries whose incomes are between 100-138% of the federal poverty level to pay $19 a month towards the cost of their insurance premiums;
– Requiring individuals who can obtain health insurance through their employers to do so rather than rely on the government program
– Reducing costs and making the program more responsible with taxpayer dollars
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, expressed hope that some of those who voted no Thursday will vote differently in the fiscal session, when Arkansas Works will be part of the larger Medicaid budget.
“You try to make people differentiate the vote on policy from the vote on appropriation,” he said. “I think you have to make people understand that we have not historically used appropriation blocking to change policy.”
Senate Republicans split 14-10 in favor of Arkansas Works. All 11 Senate Democrats voted yes.
Voting for the bill along with Hendren were the following: Sens. David Burnett, D-Osceola; Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne; Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett; Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock; John Cooper, R-Jonesboro; Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe; Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; Jane English, R-North Little Rock; Jake Files, R-Fort Smith; Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana; Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock; Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis; David Johnson, D-Little Rock; Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville; Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia; Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan; Jason Rapert, R-Conway; Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs; David Sanders, R-Little Rock; Greg Standridge, R-Russellville; Larry Teague, D-Nashville; Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot; and Jon Woods, R-Springdale.
Voting no were: Sens. Cecille Bledsoe, R-Rogers; Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale; Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas; Scott Flippo, R-Bull Shoals; Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs; Missy Irvin, R-Mountain Home; Blake Johnson, R-Corning; Bryan King, R-Green Forest; Terry Rice, R-Waldron; and Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
In the House, Republicans were split, 35-29 in favor, with Rep. Nate Bell, I-Mena, a former Republican, also voting no. All 35 House Democrats voted yes.
The roll call can be viewed here.
The vote came after lengthy debate and discussion. Hendren, the bill’s Senate sponsor, argued that the state’s health care sector would face a $5 billion loss from 2017-21 because of the Affordable Care Act’s taxes and other changes. That money would be offset by $9 billion coming into the state through Arkansas Works. Without Arkansas Works, the state therefore would face a loss. Moreover, Arkansas Works would reduce the amount of uncompensated care hospitals provide by $1 billion during those years. Also, without Arkansas Works state government would have to make up $757 million in its budget.
“It is an entirely different proposition to start a program than it is to end it,” Hendren said.
Hendren was challenged by opponents of the bill, including King, who asked about a provision in Arkansas Works that will provide work training for recipients. How will state government provide training for 250,000 people, he asked. Clark asked what significant reforms Arkansas Works actually makes to the private option. Flippo asked what the state’s moral obligation will be if the federal government asks Arkansas to pick up more of the tab. The bill says the state will quit the program, but what about the recipients?
Hendren said that if Arkansas couldn’t afford it, it would end the program. “We make decisions every day based on what we’d like to do versus what we can afford to do,” he said.
Rapert and Maloch spoke for the bill. Clark and Blake Johnson spoke against it. “We’re driving the bus to single payer,” Clark said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson was out of town earlier in the day. He released a statement late Thursday afternoon saying the votes in the House and Senate “exceeded” his expectations.
“I was pleased by the strength of the vote margin for the passage of the Arkansas Works. The results exceeded our expectations and are a clear indication that a very strong, bipartisan majority supports this policy for Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. “This impressive vote is a solid foundation for the funding approval in the fiscal session.”
Hutchinson announced he will sign the bills into law at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 8 in the Governor’s conference room.