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Arkansas moves forward on health overhaul

Associated Press Modified: November 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm •  Published: November 11, 2012

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas officials say the state is moving forward with implementing parts of the federal health care law after an election that provided clarity on the federal level but uncertainty in the state Legislature about the political future of the controversial legislation.

President Barack Obama's re-election on Tuesday night came in the same election where Republicans won control of both chambers of the state Legislature partly based on opposition to his federal health care overhaul. Officials with Gov. Mike Beebe's administration say the election at the national level provides some certainty on the future of the law as it takes effect in the state.

The next step for Arkansas comes this week, when Beebe is expected to formally tell Obama administration officials that the state plans on partnering with the federal government on setting up a health insurance exchange, in which millions of households and small businesses will shop for private coverage. A spokesman for Beebe's office said the governor planned to notify the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by the end of the week.

The partnership option allows states to handle consumer relations and oversight of health plans, while the federal government does the heavy lifting, taking care of enrollment, and figuring out any taxpayer help that consumers may be entitled to. Beebe had opted for the partnership model after Republicans last year opposed efforts for the state to set up its own exchange.

"We will pursue the next best thing we can to maintain as much state input as possible," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.

Arkansas has already received $27.7 million in grants from the federal government for planning for the exchange partnership, including an $18.6 million grant that's still pending approval from state lawmakers, according to Cynthia Crone, who leads the Insurance Department's Health Benefits Exchange Partnership division.

Crone said the presidential election may help in making the case to lawmakers who wanted to wait and see whether Obama would remain in office before moving forward on the exchange partnership, which allows the state to have some say in its setup.

The bigger question looming for the state is whether lawmakers will support an expansion of Medicaid's eligibility under the federal health care law. Beebe has said he supports the expansion, which would add about 250,000 people to the state's Medicaid rolls, but noted that it'll take the support of 3/4th of the House and Senate. With Republicans who are opposed or hesitant about the idea, that may be too high of a vote threshold in the GOP-controlled Legislature next year.

If approved, the expansion would offer coverage to everyone making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That works out to about $15,400 for an individual or $30,650 for a family of four. Most of those who would be added to the Medicaid rolls are low-income adults without children.

Beebe has said that the election doesn't change his agenda, including the Medicaid expansion, and noted that winning support for it was an uphill challenge even before Republicans won control of the state Legislature.

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