BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE NATE BELL –
On Monday we began the state’s third Fiscal Session. Fiscal sessions were mandated by Arkansas voters in 2008 with the passage of a constitutional amendment that requires annual updating and approval of the state budget.
The keystone of all our discussions in this budget session will be the renewal of Arkansas’ unique Medicaid expansion commonly known as the “private option.” I voted against the original legislation and the accompanying appropriation bills during the 2013 regular session. I did so for two primary reasons. First of all, the primary basis for the expansion is the federal healthcare takeover commonly known as Obamacare or the ACA. The federal law has been unstable and the President and federal agencies modify the rules and implementation almost daily. I believe it is bad public policy for our state to voluntarily establish and eliminate programs based on such an unstable foundation. Secondly, the “private option” results in a net annual increase of federal spending of more than $1,100,000,000. I have always opposed federal deficit spending and I could not in good conscience vote for such a massive increase in the deficit and debt. Despite my opposition the increased spending and program expansion narrowly passed last April.
The “private option” discontinued several Medicaid waiver programs and replaced them with subsidized private insurance policies. Many of the waivers that permitted those programs to exist have now been allowed to expire. Other existing programs have been fundamentally changed or eliminated by state law. This is important to remember as the discussion of “defunding” takes place. “Defunding” the Medicaid expansion will not reset us to the same situation we had before passage of the new program. It will simply remove funding from the existing program. Restoring Arkansans to the same situation that existed before the new laws were passed requires passage of legislation and reapplying for federal Medicaid waivers.
The fiscal session comes with numerous barriers to passage of non-budget bills. These barriers make it extremely difficult to pass general legislation. Recent public comments from several members who voted YES on the “private option” indicate that there will almost certainly not be the ¾ majority of votes required for renewal of the program.
For the last several months I have been working to find a reasonable plan that doesn’t require passage of new general legislation, reduces overall spending and limits Arkansas’ dependence on the flawed federal foundation of Obamacare. I am actively working with members of the House and Senate on both sides of the “private option” issue as we seek an agreement that will avoid the kind of shutdown politics we’ve seen far too often in Washington, DC.
I’ll keep you updated as the process unfolds.