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Arkansas governor seeks appeal of decision voiding Medicaid work rules

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) asks the Trump administration to appeal a court ruling voiding the state’s Medicaid work rules.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) asks the Trump administration to appeal a court ruling voiding the state’s Medicaid work rules. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said Thursday that “no one will lose coverage from this day forward,” after a Washington federal judge blocked rules that compelled many poor people to work in exchange for public health insurance.

But calling the previous day’s court ruling “a great disruption of the status quo,” Hutchinson pledged to fight vigorously to continue the first-in-the-nation work requirements that Arkansas imposed last year on people in a part of Medicaid that expanded under the Affordable Care Act. He said he had urged the Trump administration to swiftly appeal the judge’s decision and seek a stay that would allow the state to resume the program while the legal case continues.

Neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Health and Human Services would discuss the legal strategy the administration intends to pursue in response to a pair of opinions handed down by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg late Wednesday afternoon. In the opinions, Boasberg, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote that HHS officials had failed to properly consider the effect of the work requirements on people who need coverage when they approved such rules for Arkansas, where they have been in effect for nearly 10 months, and Kentucky, where they were delayed by a previous ruling from Boasberg.

The judge invalidated the federal approvals and said federal health officials would need to reconsider the Arkansas and Kentucky plans, for a second and third time, respectively.

An HHS spokeswoman said “no appeal decisions have been made yet.” The spokeswoman, Caitlin Oakley, confirmed the Arkansas governor has conferred with the department’s deputy secretary and other senior officials. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

At a news conference in the state capitol in Little Rock, Hutchinson said that to comply with the judge’s ruling, Arkansas had immediately closed the online portal for people to report their work hours — and would not remove anyone else from the program, though it had been preparing to announce a new round of cutoffs within a few weeks. But he emphasized, “I remain fully committed to a work requirement, and we are in this for the long haul because we believe it is the right policy.”

President Trump’s senior health advisers also appeared undeterred by the judge’s disapproval.

Seema Verma, administrator of HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is poised to permit Utah to become the ninth state to win federal permission to require work in exchange for Medicaid coverage, according to individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity about a decision that is not yet public.

“We will continue to defend our efforts to give states greater flexibility to help low-income Americans rise out of poverty,” Verma said late Wednesday immediately after the rulings.

The administration and GOP governors, including Hutchinson, contend that requiring poor and working-class people to work, prepare for jobs or volunteer as a condition for Medicaid coverage puts them on a path toward self-sufficiency. Critics on the left counter that such requirements merely deprive people of access to health care — and in some cases, make it impossible for them to work.

In Arkansas, about 18,000 people have lost coverage through Arkansas Works, as the state calls the part of Medicaid it expanded through the Affordable Care Act.

During a conference call by opponents of work requirements, Kevin De Liban, an attorney for Legal Aid of Arkansas, which helped bring the lawsuit that led to the judge’s ruling, said advocates are focused on notifying people who have been cut off from Medicaid and urging them to reapply.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.