Updated 

More than 66,000 have applied for private option


LITTLE ROCK — More than 66,000 Arkansans have applied for health insurance coverage under the state’s plan to use federal Medicaid money to provide private insurance the working poor, a state Department of Human Services official told a legislative panel Thursday.

Lawmakers also peppered a state Insurance Department official about her comments that the program has been hindered by the Legislature’s refusal to endorse renewal of a contract for outreach.

Joni Jones, director of DHS’ Division of County Operations, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate committees on public health, welfare and labor that 66,094 people had applied for the co-called “private option” by Oct. 19. She said 62,021 of those applications have been approved.

The private option, officially called the Arkansas Health Care Independence Program, is open to people who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan is Arkansas’ alternative to the state Medicaid expansion that was proposed under the federal Affordable Care Act.

State Medicaid Director Andy Allison said applicants who are found to be eligible for the program are encouraged to visit its website, www.insureark.org, to register, although the process also can be completed by phone or by mail. About 15,000 people have visited the site, he said.

About 28 percent of the people who have registered have been found to be medically frail and therefore are eligible for Medicaid rather than the private option, Allison said.

The panel also heard from state Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford, who said 71 health insurance plans are available across the state through the marketplace, but the number available in each of seven service areas ranges from 11 in southwestern and southeastern Arkansas to 41 in Central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas.

Of the 71 plans, 23 are gold plans estimated to cover 80 percent of medical costs, 16 are silver plans covering 70 percent of costs, 24 are bronze plans covering 60 percent of costs and eight are catastrophic plans which cover very high medical costs for people who are under 30 or qualify for a hardship exemption.

Cynthia Crone, director of the state Insurance Department’s Health Benefits Exchange Partnership Division, answered questions about the Arkansas Health Connector website, which provides information about the marketplace and sends visitors to the federal marketplace website to enroll — although the federal site has been plagued with technical problems since its Oct. 1 launch.

Crone said the Arkansas Health Connector site is not being updated because the state Legislative Council declined to review a $4.5 million contract for services to promote the marketplace, including web services. Information such as the names and contact information of the latest marketplace guides to be licensed has not been posted to the site, she said.

Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, chairman of the House public health committee, said that “surely there is somebody at the Insurance Department that can do that. Now that the contract is not renewed, I don’t think the answer is to twiddle our (thumbs).”

Crone said the information is being updated on the Insurance Department’s website, although it is more “cumbersome” for visitors to find it there.

Crone also said that activity on the Arkansas Health Connector site “has dropped way down. People who had come are not coming back because it’s not updated.”

“They’re not coming back for other reasons that are well documented,” Burris said, apparently referring to the technical problems with the federal marketplace site.

Crone said visits have “bumped up” briefly each time the Insurance Department has conducted an outreach effort, such as its booth at the state fair.

“When information is out, the activity increases,” she said.

Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked how much money the Insurance Department would need just to maintain the website. Crone estimated that it would need about $500,000.

“Would that finish the job?” Hammer asked.

“I don’t think it would finish the job,” Crone said. “We also need social media and other pieces. Would I be totally happy? I’d be happy to have that (but) I think we need more. I think that states that are doing this effectively and getting a response from people are investing.”