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Arkansas lawmakers vote to keep Medicaid plan after ruling

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at a news conference about a ruling against the state's work requirement for its Medicaid expansion program at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas lawmakers voted Tuesday to keep the state’s Medicaid expansion another year, days after a court decision blocking the state from enforcing a work requirement put the program’s future in limbo.

The majority-Republican House voted 75-18 for the budget for Medicaid and the expansion program, sending the legislation to GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The Senate-backed bill on Friday fell short nearly two dozen votes of the 75 needed in the 100-member House to win final approval.

The vote comes nearly a week after a federal judge blocked Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky. Hutchinson has urged the federal government to appeal the decision and said he wanted lawmakers to maintain the expansion program, which covers 235,000 people.

“This is a key part of my budget and provides essential funding for health care needs of those Arkansans who are struggling financially,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “This appropriation also allows us to continue the fight for reform, such as the work requirement.”

Arkansas’ work requirement applied only to the expansion program, not traditional Medicaid. More than 18,000 people lost coverage last year because of the requirement, but were eligible to re-enroll in January. Hutchinson has said 2,000 have done so. Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation this week that would immediately reinstate those who have lost coverage.

Arkansas’ expansion program, which uses federal and state funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents, has sharply divided the majority-Republican Legislature since it was created in 2013. Last week’s ruling prompted some GOP lawmakers to urge a delay in considering the budget bill or to take up the expansion’s budget separately.

But the only lawmaker to speak against the measure Tuesday focused on concerns about the overall cost of the Medicaid budget rather than the ruling.

“We’re on a road that we cannot pay for,” GOP Rep. Mary Bentley said.

Hutchinson has said defunding the expansion would have meant giving up the fight over the work requirement, an argument he continued making to lawmakers leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Republican Rep. Joe Cloud, who supported the budget measure Tuesday after opposing it last week, said he was swayed by Hutchinson meeting with lawmakers to reassure them he’s committed to the work requirement and was urging an appeal.

“That was very important for me personally,” Cloud said after the vote.

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