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Disappointing news for tens of thousands of Arkansas residents arrived on Tuesday, when the state’s House of Representatives failed to pass legislation that would have provided funding for the state’s “private option” Medicaid plan.

The private option plan was first devised by Arkansas’ GOP-controlled legislature in 2013 as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion prescribed by the Affordable Care Act. Under the plan, Arkansas distributes federal funds – provided under the health care reform law – to eligible recipients, most of whom belong to the state’s poorest population, who would then use the funds to buy private health insurance plans that they would otherwise be unable to afford.

Though the private option passed in 2013 with support from Republicans and the state’s Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, in recent weeks several GOP politicians have threatened to abandon the program, fearing that their support could give their more conservative challengers a point of attack in upcoming primary elections.

On Tuesday, the appropriations bill containing the private option plan failed in the 100-member house, in a 70-27 vote – just 5 votes shy of passing.

House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, says the bill will be brought to the floor again.

“We’re going to vote again tomorrow and the next day and the next day,” said Carter, who also says that he hopes the bill will pass.

Lawmakers have until March 19 to pass the bill, and Governor Beebe is optimistic that the Senate has the 27 votes it needs to push the legislation through Arkansas’ upper chamber.

Beebe also warns that if lawmakers ultimately fail to pass the bill, they would create a $90 million hole in the state budget and leave approximately 100,000 people — 87,000 who were ineligible for Medicaid and another 13,000 who were eligible for Medicaid but had not enrolled — who have signed up for the program uninsured. That’s less than half the number of low-income residents whom Beebe’s office estimates will participate in and benefit from the program if it continues.

Not passing a bill could also have nationwide implications, considering that several states are adopting their own version of the private option plan. For Republican critics, the argument against adopting such a plan is that supporting a program dependent on funds provided under Obamacare equates to support for the health care law and Medicaid expansion. If the Arkansas legislature votes to discontinue funding for the program, the move may lend weight to critics’ argument and empower them in states that hope to move forward with the plan.

Still, even Republicans who do not support the ACA say that the state should at least take advantage of it to help its hospitals and poorest residents.

“When we can’t defeat bad policy, it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to influence it,” said Republican state representative Nate Bill.

Photo: L. Allen Brewer via Flickr

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