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Arkansas lawmakers approve health plan seen as compromise with Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Boston bombing from the White House in Washington April 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarqu
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Boston bombing from the White House in Washington April 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarqu

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday approved extending health insurance to more of the state's low-income citizens through a measure that could be a model for other conservative-leaning states as a compromise to implement President Barack Obama's signature health reform law.

The Republican-dominated Arkansas House of Representatives passed the bill 77-23. The measure now goes to the state Senate where it is expected to easily pass.

The Arkansas plan has drawn interest from some conservatives in Republican-controlled states such as Texas and Louisiana because it would use federal funds to buy private insurance as a way to help the most vulnerable citizens, while avoiding a major government expansion.

Obama's healthcare reform includes a sweeping expansion of Medicaid, which his administration hopes will expand health coverage to at least another 12 million low-income Americans by the end of the decade.

The healthcare reform law has run into stiff political resistance in Republican-controlled states, particularly in the South, where leaders have been unwilling to expand Medicaid or to set up their own health exchanges.

The Arkansas plan would use federal Medicaid funds to buy private insurance for state residents who earn up to 133 percent of the poverty line, or $15,415 per year. The insurance would be purchased through a health insurance exchange that the federal government is scheduled to begin operating with Arkansas on January 1, 2014.

The measure had originally failed to garner the needed supermajority of 75 votes when it first came before the Arkansas House on Monday, but the House then voted to expunge that result and to vote anew on Tuesday.

Representative Sue Scott, a Republican, voted against the bill on Monday, but voted in favor on Tuesday after pressure from constituents.

"I've received too many calls from real people," Scott said in explaining her change of vote.

The measure won praise from the state's Democrats.

"The private option is win-win for our state's economy, small businesses, and most importantly, the working Arkansans who will have health care coverage,' said Candace Martin, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

Marilyn Tavenner, the U.S. health official who oversees Medicaid and Medicare and the implementation of the health reform law, said U.S. officials are talking to a handful of states about setting up a program similar to Arkansas.

Provisions of the healthcare reform law have been challenged in court cases around the country. In a landmark ruling last June, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the healthcare reform law on constitutional grounds but allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion.

The expansion has since been accepted by governors in about half of the 50 U.S. states.

(This story fixes word in first sentence to "conservative-leaning," not "conservative-leaving")

(Reporting by Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Arkansas; David Morgan in Washington and Michele Gershberg in New York; Writing by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Greg McCune and Leslie Adler)

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