LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter challenged opponents of the state's compromise Medicaid expansion Tuesday to offer an alternative that could break a legislative stalemate threatening the future of a program that provides subsidized coverage to more than 93,000 people.
The House delayed plans to vote for a fifth time on the "private option," after Carter backed off his vow to take up the bill every day on the program's future until it passes. Approved as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, the private option is using federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.
The Senate last week voted to reauthorize the program, but the measure has remained stalled before the House after four failed votes. Carter said he didn't know when his chamber would take up the legislation again and said he wanted lawmakers to work through other budget issues for now.
"If somebody else has got a better idea, then I want to see it," Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters. "Instead of complaining about the idea that three-fourths of the Senate has and so far the vast majority of the House members have. Just produce it. There's nothing."
The impasse threatens a program that has been touted as a way for Republican-leaning states to implement a key part of the president's health care law. The private option has sharply divided Republicans, who control the Arkansas Legislature and have made major gains in the state primarily by running against the law they deride as "Obamacare."
A chief opponent of the program said he was willing to talk about alternatives, and pointed to a proposal offered that would prevent the state from enrolling anyone else in the private option and would end the program by next March. Supporters of the program have dismissed that plan as not a serious effort at compromise since it kills the program they're trying to save.
"I think we've been trying to talk about what could be acceptable to a supermajority of the House," said House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs.
In a sign of how personal the fight has become, lawmakers rejected an effort by the top Democrat in the House to strip the name of a legislator opposed to the private option from a state highway. The proposal, which was defeated 42 to 23, would have prohibited naming a state highway paid for with federal dollars for anyone who has served as a chairman of the state highway commission and chaired a legislative committee.
The proposal was aimed at Rep. Jonathan Barnett, a former chairman of the Highway Commission and chairman of the House Public Transportation Committee. A two-mile section of U.S. Highway 412 in northwest Arkansas is named for Barnett, R-Siloam Springs.
"If we are unwilling or concerned about adding millions to the deficit by extending much-needed health insurance to nearly a quarter million working Arkansans, then we should also be unwilling to add our names to any other federal project that adds millions to the deficit," said House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who proposed the measure be added to the state highway department's budget.
Barnett did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Carter also vented frustration with some opponents of the private option who he said negotiated in bad faith on amendments that were aimed at winning their support. The amendments include a prohibition on the state spending any public funds to promote the program.
The lawmaker who had proposed those amendments said a special session may be needed to address the future of the program.
"At this point, I think we are bordering on wasting people's money," said Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena. "We can't just continue to sit here and vote on the same bill over and over."
Gov. Mike Beebe, the only one who could call a special session, said he didn't believe lawmakers would end this session without approving the state's Medicaid budget. The $915 million appropriation for the private option is included in the Medicaid budget bill.
"I don't intend for that to happen. I just can't imagine it," Beebe said.