In a response to the Affordable Care Act, the Arkansas legislature is looking at expanding Medicaid by utilizing the private sector to provide health insurance for low-income Arkansans.

The Affordable Care Act offered an expansion of Medicaid eligibility levels so states can cover low-income adults between 19 and 64 years old and increase the eligibility level to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the expansion in June 2012 but said it had to be offered to the states as an option, not a mandate.

In Arkansas, an option has emerged to enroll those newly eligible for Medicaid in private insurance plans. Between 200,000 and 250,000 more Arkansans would be covered. The cost of covering these premiums would be covered by the federal government from 2014 to 2016. After that, the federal share would decrease and the state would pick up 10 percent of that cost.

"(Republican leadership) wanted a private option and I think we’re bringing back a nationally acclaimed option," said Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson. "It really represents democrats and republicans working together."

The state has garnered a tentative approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and several other states have looked at Arkansas’ proposal as a possible solution for their own citizens.

Thompson said the plan would give affected citizens access to health care without having to switch programs and providers when their income fluctuates.

"We are looking at innovative ways to make things happen," he said.

Additionally, doctors would get paid the same as if they were seeing a non-Medicaid patient.

"They won’t know that it is a Medicaid patient," Thompson said.

Conway Regional Health System President and CEO Jim Lambert said at the State of Health Luncheon March 28 that the plan seems like a more market-driven approach than simply expanding Medicaid.

"The state will better off financially by expanding the Medicaid this way because of the revenue it brings into the state," he said.

Conway Regional’s uncompensated care is "extremely high," Lambert said, and the expansion could help curb those costs.

"Part of this Medicaid expansion is a hope to make sure more people are insured so when they show up we can get compensated for some of that care that’s being provided already," he said.

Thompson said he is concerned the legislature may not make a decision on the expansion by the end of the session. If the state waits until next year to utilize federal funds, it will have lost a full year of complete support.

"Let’s get it right and let’s get it through," he said.

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