Republicans in Arkansas take unusual health stand

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Like their counterparts in other southern states, Arkansas Republicans denounced ‘‘Obamacare’’ during this year’s election campaign and called for its repeal. But now that they won control of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years, GOP lawmakers are considering something that would be anathema to conservatives elsewhere — expanding government health care in the state.

Instead of rejecting outright the idea of expanding the Medicaid program for the poor — an optional part of the new health insurance system — Arkansas lawmakers are exploring ways of adding up to 250,000 low-income residents to the rolls, which already include a fourth of the state’s population.

‘‘It’s a one-time opportunity to strive for complete coverage and catch up to the richer states,’’ said Joe Thompson, the state surgeon general. ‘‘It is not fair that a working mom in Arkansas could be disadvantaged in the same way that if she were in Maine, she’d be advantaged.’’


The legislative effort may fall short. Republicans seek more flexibility to contain Medicaid’s costs, which the federal government and states jointly pay, and the Obama administration has ruled out some possibilities. ­Also, the move would require support of three-fourths of the state House and Senate.

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‘‘I’m not naive about the fact that some of them campaigned against it and wouldn’t change their mind,’’ said Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat who supports the expansion. ‘‘It’s just a question of how many.’’

That the idea is under active consideration reflects a state where Republican dominance and strict partisan ideology have not been entrenched for years, unlike the states around Arkansas, and where many working families subsist on modest incomes. Supporters hope the effort could produce a hybrid approach that could work in politically and fiscally conservative places.

“From the liberal and progressive side, people want to see more people covered by Medicaid. From the conservative side, people are worried about the long-term financial risk,’’ said incoming Senate President Michael Lamoureux, a Republican.