Insurance marketplace launches

By John Lyon

Arkansas News Bureau

After years of planning, the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace launched Tuesday, offering a way for an estimated 500,000 currently uninsured Arkansans to shop for insurance plans, some of them subsidized with federal money.

State Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said Monday he expected "some bumps along the road," one of which occurred Monday when the state Legislative Council voted not to review a $4.5 million contract to advertise the insurance exchange.

The council had considered the contract with Mangan Holcomb Partners on Sept. 20 but decided then to delay action. On Monday, a motion to review the contract failed in almost a straight party-line vote.

Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage was the only Democrat who joined with the Republican majority on the council to vote against reviewing the contract.

Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters later that the council’s action seemed "incongruous."

"If you are voting for the private option, how do you expect to get the word out?" Beebe said, referring to the plan, approved by the state Legislature, to use federal Medicaid money to buy private insurance through the marketplace for the state’s working poor.

The federal government has already appropriated funding for the contract, as has the Arkansas Legislature. The council’s action was not binding on the executive branch, but Beebe said he would listen to lawmakers’ concerns.

"If they’ve got a better way to get that message to people, maybe they want less money spent now on this message, or more on a different kind. I’m certainly open to listening to what they have to say," he said.

Regardless of whether the state enters into the contract, the first day of enrollment will proceed.

"Arkansans are going to have a lot to benefit from this process," Bradford said. "There’s a lot of people that don’t have insurance that are going to be able to take advantage of this program."

A federal government shutdown was looming when Bradford spoke to reporters. He said that if a shutdown were to occur as a result of a Congress failing to reach a budget agreement by midnight, the resulting federal spending cuts would not prevent the marketplace from launching.

"It is my understanding that the Affordable Health Care Act money has been segregated and is preserved from the cutback," he said.

The federal Affordable Care Act requires nearly all Americans to have health insurance starting in January. Health coverage purchased through the marketplace will be effective Jan. 1.

Arkansas received federal approval last week for the private option, which will use federal money to pay for an estimated 250,000 Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to buy insurance. Others can receive federal subsidies to help them buy insurance if their income is no more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The federal poverty level is $11,490 for an individual and $15,510 for a couple. For a family of four, it is $23,550.

Several Republican members of the Legislative Council objected Monday to the state Insurance Department seeking to spend $4.5 million in federal money to promote the marketplace after having already spent $4.3 million for the same purpose.

"My nagging question is, when is enough enough?" asked Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

Bradford and other officials testified that the money was needed for the second phase of promotion. They said the first phase raised awareness about the existence of the marketplace and the second phase would inform Arkansans how to enroll.

State Surgeon General Joe Thompson also said that "snake oil salesmen" are trying to deceive the public about their options and said the state needs to counter their efforts by disseminating accurate information.

Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.