DHS: More than 170,000 found eligible for private option


LITTLE ROCK — More than 170,000 Arkansans have applied and been found eligible for the so-called private option, the state Department of Human Services said Tuesday.

Meanwhile Tuesday, a state senator said she was unhappy that coverage for certain medical services has been made available to private-option participants only in certain areas of the state. Also, another state senator has weighed in on the question of whether Utah should view Arkansas’ program as a model.

The private option is Arkansas’ program that uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. By the end of April, 170,033 people had applied and been found eligible for the program, out of about 225,000 who are estimated to qualify, according to DHS.

“We’re reaching the predicted levels of participation far quicker than previous expansions” of Medicaid such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, state Medicaid Director Andy Allison told reporters Tuesday.

During a meeting Tuesday of the House and Senate committees on public health, welfare and labor, state Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, complained that vision and dental benefits are available with private-option insurance plans only in central, western and northwestern Arkansas.

“This doesn’t sit well with me at all,” she said. “I think it’s unconstitutional.”

Officials with the state Insurance Department and DHS said one of the four insurance carriers selling insurance through the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, Ambetter, had offered two versions of a medium-level, or silver, plan, one of which includes vision and dental benefits. Participants in the private option can pick any silver plan and have their premiums paid with federal Medicaid money.

Ambetter is only operating in the central, western and northwestern areas of the state. State Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford told the legislative panel that all four carriers intend to operate statewide next year — but the carriers will be asked to submit plans for the private option that offer only essential benefits. Vision and dental benefits are considered nonessential.

Allison told Flowers that state officials did not know Ambetter would offer vision and dental benefits until after the federal government approved the company’s insurance plans. He said the state did not intend to provide benefits unequally to people participating in the private option.

Reporters later asked Allison about Flowers’ statement that the inequity between regions may be unconstitutional. He answered that “variance among regions is not explicitly precluded” by the federal government.

On Friday, an op-ed by state Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, appeared in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by the Mormon Church, asserting that the private option is succeeding.

The piece was a reaction to an earlier op-ed written for the same publication by state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which called the private option “an unmitigated disaster” and urged Utah not to adopt a similar approach to Medicaid expansion.

Sanders said in his op-ed that Arkansas’ program is achieving its goals of expanding consumer choice and reducing uncompensated care at hospitals and that, with adjustments, its costs will fall within a federal cap.

“Utah, welcome to the fight,” he wrote.