LITTLE ROCK — House Speaker Davy Carter on Tuesday blamed the impasse in the House over the private option on certain legislators negotiating in bad faith.
Carter, R-Cabot, had said last week he expected a fifth vote on appropriating federal funding for the so-called private option to happen in the House on Tuesday, but he chose not to call for a vote during Tuesday’s House session. The House will focus on other budget bills for now, he told reporters later.
Carter said that during negotiations weeks ago, Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, advanced a proposed amendment that would end state promotion of the state Health Insurance Marketplace, and certain legislators agreed to support the private option if the amendment was adopted. The amendment was adopted, and the appropriation passed in the Senate but failed in House votes on four consecutive days last week, with Bell being the only legislator who switched from opposing to supporting it.
The negotiations "turned out not to be in good faith, not by Rep. Bell but from others that he was working with," Carter said.
The speaker also said he had received a letter Tuesday asking for further negotiations. The letter, signed by 26 Republican House members, argued that the repeated votes on the private option were creating "unnecessary tension within the House membership" and asked for a "different approach."
"A handful of those members that were … a part of those negotiations with Rep. Bell, are some of the ones that are now the ones saying that I’m refusing to negotiate, and others are refusing to negotiate, which in reality is not true," Carter said. "The idea that no one has sat down to negotiate this matter is false. I would submit that those negotiations on my side, the Senate leadership’s and the governor’s side were done in good faith."
The private option funding is included in the budget for the state Department of Human Services’ Medical Services Division. Carter said that despite the current impasse he is hopeful the Legislature can pass a budget and complete the work of the session by March 6.
Carter declined to name the legislators he was accusing of negotiating in bad faith.
Bell did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
The private option, the state’s program that uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for low-income Arkansans, has provided coverage to 105,561 people, the state Department of Human Services said Tuesday. That number includes 11,595 people who have been enrolled in traditional Medicaid because they are medically frail.
House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said Tuesday he was not part of the negotiations Carter referenced, but he believed there was still hope for a compromise.
"I think at the end of the day, we’ve got to negotiate to come up with a solution, regardless of what’s happened in the past," Westerman said.
One possible avenue for compromise, Westerman said, is a proposal by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, and Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, that would require the state to seek approval from the federal government to cap enrollment at the end of the current fiscal year — and would end the program if permission is denied.
Ballinger said Tuesday that he was not part of the negotiations with Bell, but he said last week’s votes showed that more negotiations are necessary, either on his proposal or something else.
"Frankly, that’s the way the legislative process works," he said.
Carter said supporters of the private option agreed to support the Bell amendment, even though many disliked it, because they were told that doing so would enable the appropriation to pass.
"To go back to all these other people to say, ‘Well, I know this is what you were told before but nobody really meant that; now we want you to do these other things’ — it’s just not going to happen," he said.
The contentiousness of the fight over the private option was evident on the House floor on Tuesday. Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, proposed amending a highway funding bill to remove the name of Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, from a section of highway in Northwest Arkansas that is named for him. Leding supports the private option and Barnett opposes it.
Leding said that if legislators are concerned about increasing the federal deficit — an argument that has been made against the private option — they should not put their names on other federal projects that raise the deficit.
The amendment was defeated in a 23-42 vote.