LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Gov. Mike Beebe expressed optimism Thursday that a deal can be reached to expand Medicaid in Arkansas, telling a crowd of hundreds at the state Capitol that he and Republican lawmakers were on a "positive track" in talks to provide health care coverage to more low-income residents.
Both sides in the Medicaid debate signaled compromise may be near during the rally, attended by retirees in AARP T-shirts and medical professionals — some wearing scrubs or lab coats.
The Democratic governor's proposal would expand coverage to state residents who earn up to 138 percent of the poverty line, or $15,415 per year. Those people would receive private insurance bought with money from the federal-state Medicaid program and sold through an exchange created under the federal health overhaul.
Three-fourths of the House and Senate are needed for the package to become law.
"It's on a positive track," Beebe said. "But ... 75 percent in both houses is hard to get. We've done it before and I'm cautiously optimistic that it's moving in the right direction. But you know, everybody's got to be sensitive to one another, try to answer everybody's questions. So it's an ongoing process."
The governor told members of the crowd to "be very respectful" when they lobby their legislators and stressed that a supermajority will be difficult to achieve.
"That doesn't happen in a Legislature that is roughly divided in a partisan basis," Beebe said. "We dang sure don't need to get like Washington. They've got to be able to get together and they've got to be able to listen to each other."
Under the new federal health care law, the U.S. government would pay the full cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years, after which states would start picking up 10 percent of the cost should they opt to expand.
When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health overhaul law it didn't uphold the Medicaid portion, when left it open for states to individually decide whether to opt in. Beebe argued Thursday that cuts to Medicare — the health program for senior citizens — are helping pay for health reform and that Arkansas should accept the federal government's offer to pay for three years of Medicaid expansion.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said legislators are still exploring the ramifications the new system would bring but are eager to learn more information.
Beebe praised legislators for their willingness to listen. In the last regular session, the Legislature rejected Beebe's proposal to create a state-run health insurance exchange.
He told the crowd that support has been building among legislators for the program, which would expand coverage to an estimated 215,000 people who are now uninsured.
"So far, every question has been answered, and every one that's been asked and been answered has resulted in positive feedback, not negative feedback," Beebe said.
Dr. Clark Fincher, a physician from Searcy, told the gathering that expanding Medicaid would improve outcomes and increase access to health providers while reducing "the burden of uncompensated care."
He also said a Rand Corp. study showed the expansion would save 2,300 lives per year — six per day — and create 6,200 jobs.
Faye Graham of Little Rock said from the podium that she is "one of the newly minted poor," rendered so by treatment of two types of cancers. She said she was treated in three states, had to move four times and is now homeless.
"The entire country needs it (the Medicaid expansion) desperately, and I personally need it desperately," she said.
Graham said she holds and advanced degree and that her three children graduated from exclusive colleges. She noted that the end of a marriage can leave a former spouse uninsured.
"We are one broken relationship away from ruin," said Graham, adding she holds three jobs but is still uninsured.
Earlier Thursday, House Public Health Committee Chairman Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, reaffirmed that while Republicans saw opportunity in expanding health care coverage under the new private option they had not yet fully embraced the idea.
"I just don't want the perception to be that there is already an agreement because nothing could be further from the truth," Burris told lawmakers on the panel. He said the new option had opened a Pandora's Box of issues that Republicans were still reviewing.
"Everybody's' striving for the end of the session, but 30 days is not that much time for the level of discussion we have to have," he said, leaving open the possibility that lawmakers would have to convene a special session to take up the issue.
Associated Press writer Michael Stratford contributed to this report.
Follow Chuck Bartels on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cbartelsLIT