Arkansas' Obamacare Alternative Experiment Struggling

Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas is battling to keep his health care experiment afloat.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe speaks at a meeting of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association in North Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, says his plan to expand insurance has saved taxpayers $90 million. 

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Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has tried to find a way to expand insurance to residents of his conservative state in compliance with the Affordable Care Act, said Monday his plan has saved taxpayers about $90 million so far. But even though his proposal, a private option health insurance plan rather than an expansion of the federal Medicaid program, has bipartisan support, Beebe said it's being held up by a small minority of state lawmakers.

The state’s plan uses federal funds that would have been funneled toward Medicaid expansion to instead buy insurance from private insurers for low-income residents, according to Reuters.

Beebe, in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association winter meeting, said even governors who oppose accepting federal funds for Medicaid expansion and wholly disagree with Obamacare have expressed interest in learning more about his proposal.

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“Their taxpayers, their hospitals are going to pay for this whether they take it or not,” said Beebe regarding the federal money spent on the Affordable Care Act. “They are not going to impact the federal deficit or change what’s going on with our national debt, whether they take it or not. And they, a lot of them, have awakened to that."

The Arkansas Senate approved the $915 million appropriations bill last week, however the House voted it down, according to Reuters.  The next vote is slated for Tuesday, reports the Arkansas News

Beebe said those who voted against the bill are either putting politics first – running for office – or are philosophically opposed to any taxpayer subsidized government programs period. If the funding bill does not pass, House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican who supports the private option, will likely put it to another vote, said Beebe,

Because the legislature already passed tax decreases to match the savings generated by the private option – decreases Beebe said he cannot reverse – one major consequence of not passing the funding bill and repealing the private option would be an $86 million hole in the budget. Roughly 102,000 Arkansans have been deemed eligible for the alternative program, according to the Arkansas News.

Utah, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio have adopted or contemplated modeling their state’s own health plan off the Arkansas experiment, according to Reuters.

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In Arkansas, one of the critical votes opposing the plan belongs to state Rep. Debbie Hobbs, a Republican. Hobbs says initially she was excited at the prospect of the state being allowed to choose how Medicaid dollars were spent, but now she opposes the bill because she says it will cause more people to become dependent on the government and will ultimately increase the burden on taxpayers.

“You can call the program whatever you want to but it’s still Medicaid expansion,” she says.

Beebe said Monday the alternative plan was more than a branding decision and emphasized that it was created with input from both Republicans and Democrats.

“This was truly a bipartisan approach," he said. "It was honest to goodness substantive differences that lent themselves to private sector support.”

Hobbs says the people who call the program “free” are being “disingenuous.”

“If a new Congress comes in November there’s no guarantee that they will keep funding it," she says. "Then those people that are now dependent upon the state providing those services will demand that they keep those services and politically it’s hard for politicians to say no to a huge voting block of people.”