Arkansas gets OK to add work requirement for Medicaid recipients

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas officials say they will soon begin requiring most Medicaid recipients to work, but advocacy groups say it’s just another burden on people whose lives are already difficult.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the approval Monday of a federal waiver allowing Arkansas to implement the work requirement on participants in the state’s Arkansas Works program.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Health Policy Director Marquita Little says the work requirement is a costly and punitive move designed to “kick people who need health care” out of the program.

“I think that it does feed into many of the stereotypes that people who are in poverty, they are there by choice,” she said. “And so, it is probably more encouraging and effective approach to just offer people that assistance they need.”

Arkansas is the third state to be granted the waiver, but Hutchinson says it will likely be the first to implement the regulation, starting on June 1.

It would apply to the 285,000 enrollees in the Arkansas Works program.

The waiver does not, however, approve a requested provision to lower eligibility to 100 percent of the federal poverty level from the current 138 percent level.

Gov. Hutchinson maintains that the work requirements are designed to help, not hurt, Medicaid recipients.

"This is not about punishing anyone," he said. "It's about giving people an opportunity to work. It's to give them the training they need. It's to help them move out of poverty and move up the economic ladder."

The requirement for 20 hours of work, volunteering or vocational training would affect about 40,000 people on the program.

But, Little says adding a punishment will only serve as a disincentive to people who are already struggling.

"The fact is that the majority of people in Arkansas Works are either already working, enrolled in school, retired or are taking care of an ailing relative or a dependent," she said. "So, we're talking about a very small segment of the population."

Approval of the work requirement is seen as a key to winning support for reauthorizing the budget for the Medicaid expansion in Arkansas, which is currently pending in the state Legislature.