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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Arkansas's Option for Health Care

This past week, we’ve seen even greater momentum for the Arkansas private-option plan that would provide health insurance to an additional 250,000 Arkansans. Using federal funds made available through Medicaid, Arkansas can help working families obtain better health-care access through the new insurance exchange. When that exchange comes online next year, access to care would come from private insurance policies issued by companies competing to provide them.

For the first three years, the federal government picks up 100% of the cost of providing premium assistance for these policies. If Arkansas chooses to continue the program after that, a small state share would begin in 2017 and top out at 10% in 2020. Most of these 250,000 people who would receive this insurance are working Arkansans who can't afford insurance or those whose employers do not provide health-care benefits.

The idea for a private option came up in discussions with legislators deciding whether or not to accept expanded Medicaid funding and concerned about the amount of flexibility Arkansas might have. In late February, I met with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Washington, D.C. I asked her about our idea of purchasing private insurance policies with the available federal dollars, and she said that conceptually, Arkansas’s idea would seem to work.

Since my return from Washington, news of the Arkansas private option has spread, and we have received interest from many other states, some of which were considering foregoing this opportunity to insure more Americans altogether. In mid-March, we sent HHS a memo outlining additional details my administration had worked to craft with the General Assembly.

On April 2nd, we received the written confirmation we had been waiting for from Secretary Sebelius. In her letter she said that, quote, "The concept in the memo appears to be generally consistent with the requirements of the Medicaid statute." Until the legislature passes a final, detailed plan, however, we cannot get final review and approval from the federal government. Bills that include that plan are now being debated by the Senate and House.

Nevertheless, the biggest hurdle for this expanded insurance coverage is the passage of a bill allowing us to spend the federal money for the private option in Arkansas. That type of appropriation measure requires 75-percent approval from both houses of the General Assembly. It is not an easy threshold to reach, and we continue to share information and work to convince more and more of our lawmakers that this is the best option for our working poor. In order to take full advantage of the money made available to us, this decision must occur in these final weeks of the legislative session.

The Arkansas private option will make more of our people healthier and help save lives. It will reduce the burden of uncompensated care that we all end up paying for in the end. There will be jobs created and billions of dollars injected into our state economy. Within a year, we will begin to see savings in current Medicaid spending that can help fund tax cuts. I hope that support for the private option continues to grow for all of these reasons, but most of all because it is the right thing to do for our people.