Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The incoming leaders of the Arkansas House and Senate said Monday they're interested in using more of the state's surplus to avoid $138 million in proposed cuts to the state's Medicaid program.
Gov. Mike Beebe said preventing the suggested nursing home cuts are his top priority, but said he's reluctant to use more one-time money than he's already proposed for ongoing needs in the Medicaid program.
Beebe, incoming House Speaker Davy Carter and incoming Senate President Michael Lamoureux focused on the Medicaid shortfall and a proposal to expand the program under the federal health care law during Monday's forum previewing the 2013 legislative session, which starts Jan. 14.
The governor has proposed using $140 million from a projected surplus to help Medicaid over the next two years, but state officials say they'll still have to fill a deficit by cutting programs. Carter and Lamoureux, both Republicans, said they'd support using more of the state's projected $300 million surplus to stave off those reductions.
"I'm prepared to suggest using the surplus money, a combination of that with the growth money to avoid any of the cuts," Carter, R-Cabot, said during the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors forum at the state Capitol.
Carter and Lamoureux vowed to take any steps necessary to avoid the Medicaid cuts proposed by the Department of Human Services late last year, which include removing more than 10,000 people from nursing home care, eliminating an insurance program for low-income workers and eliminating all non-emergency dental services for adults.
"I do not think there will be any cuts to Medicaid," said Lamoureux, R-Russellville.
Beebe said his top priority will be the $35 million cut to nursing home care, which would eliminate the lowest level of nursing home care available to state seniors.
Beebe also noted that the surplus money has traditionally been used for construction projects, emergency needs for agencies and an economic development fund he controls.
"Can we do some more? Of course you always can," Beebe said. "But you make trade-offs when you do that."
Carter and Lamoureux also said they're in no rush to consider a proposal to expand Medicaid's eligibility under the federal health care law. Beebe, a Democrat, supports the move, which would add 250,000 people to the program.
The health care law calls for the federal government to pay the full tab for the Medicaid expansion when it begins in 2014. After three years, states must pay a gradually increasing share that tops out at 10 percent of the cost. The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld the health care law, but justices said the federal government could not take away states' existing federal Medicaid dollars if they refused to expand.
Republicans won control of the Legislature in the November election, and many GOP lawmakers campaigned against the expansion, which would require a three-fourths vote in both chambers. Carter and Lamoureux, however, have left open the possibility of a compromise that could allow for changes to the program that they believe would save money.
Lamoureux said the Obama administration's directive that states can't do a partial expansion and receive full federal funding makes such a compromise more difficult.
"Essentially the scope of the expansion has been limited to all or nothing," Lamoureux said. "That makes it very hard to have an agreement."
Beebe said he's willing to talk with federal officials to see how much flexibility the state has on expansion if lawmakers are able to find a compromise. But he later warned: "Let's be realistic. I don't have any magic wand, and I don't think (Carter and Lamoureux) think I do."
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo
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