The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Medicaid expansion takes a hit in Arkansas

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe comments to reporters outside the governor’s office in the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock on Jan. 15. Beebe, a Democrat, said Tuesday’s special election of Republican state Sen.-elect John Cooper makes it more difficult to pass legislation that would fund the health-care private option in the state. (Danny Johnston/AP)

A Democratic state senator forced to step down last year over ethics violations will be replaced by a Republican after a special election Tuesday that dealt a serious blow to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe’s (D) push to expand Medicaid.

Republican John Cooper defeated Democrat Steve Rockwell in a northeast Arkansas district based in Jonesboro in a race that had centered on whether to expand Medicaid to cover those making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

Cooper opposes a so-called “private option” the legislature passed last year, which would use Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for low-income Arkansas residents. Conservatives and moderate Republicans feuded over the expansion last year.

Republicans who oppose the private option believe they have the votes to stop it when the legislature returns next month. Advancing the proposal would require 75 of 100 votes in the House and 27 of 35 votes in the Senate; Republicans hold big majorities in both chambers.

“It was a difficult, difficult task to get three-fourths vote last time,” Beebe told the Associated Press after Cooper’s win. “It’s still going to be a difficult task to get three-fourths vote, but it’s doable and the logic is there.”

Already, 74,000 low-income Arkansas residents have enrolled in the private option, Arkansas officials said last month.

Several other states, including Republican-dominated Florida and Nebraska, have considered the Arkansas model as they consider Medicaid expansions of their own.