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Dec 7, 7:46 PM EST

Arkansas governor says US OKs modified Medicaid expansion



LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The Obama administration has given Arkansas permission to impose a number of restrictions in its Medicaid program at the start of the new year, saying the state can charge premiums to some recipients and require that certain recipients look for a job, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday.

About 1 in every 10 Arkansans - those in the lowest income brackets - take part in an expanded Medicaid program under which the state uses federal Medicaid dollars to buy private health insurance. It had been known as the "private option," but will be operated as "Arkansas Works" beginning Jan. 1.

While the White House shifts Democratic and Republican hands Jan. 20, Arkansas residents on the program needed to know as early as possible about new conditions being placed on their benefits, the governor said.

"We wanted to go ahead to do this because we have 300,000 Arkansans who have a cliff Jan. 1 and we wanted to make sure they have a comfort level that their health care is going to continue with these reforms in place," Hutchinson told reporters at the Capitol following a news conference held to name members of the state's Medical Marijuana Commission. The governor said he expected to receive formal notification from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in a letter Wednesday.

He said Arkansas didn't receive all of the accommodations it sought and would return to Washington after President-elect Donald Trump takes office in six weeks to seek changes for employer-sponsored health insurance plans and add more stringent work requirements. Those changes, the governor said, would be at least six to nine months away.

Arkansas received permission to impose premiums on Medicaid recipients who those earning more than the federal poverty level. Some recipients will be asked for a co-payment, a portion of a health professional's fee, and the state will be able to refer unemployed beneficiaries for job training.

The governor said the federal government approved only part of Arkansas' plan to provide incentives to employers to move people off Medicaid and into work-sponsored health insurance plans. Incentives will be restricted to businesses that are just starting their own programs.

"We will have fewer employers that will try to make a switch (without an incentive) because it will ultimately cost them money when you have some of your workers on Medicaid," Hutchinson said.

While Trump and several congressional leaders have promised to gut President Barack Obama's health care plan, known derisively as "Obamacare," Hutchinson said the Medicaid expansion it provided for could remain if states were just given funds without strings attached.

"If you give us the federal dollars right now for the Medicaid program and give us the flexibility to administer it, then we would be able to keep the Medicaid expansion with more constraints and more cost-sharing with more work requirements," he said. "We cannot have an unlimited, unpredictable future in terms of the costs to the state."

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