Insurance Department lacks funds to update marketplace website

LITTLE ROCK — The state Insurance Department’s website providing information on the new health insurance marketplace has gone dormant just as the marketplace has launched because of state legislative action to block funding, the marketplace’s board of directors heard Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the board took steps toward seeking a federal grant to pay for its operations, and a committee of board members discussed hiring an interim executive director.

Debbie Wilhite, chief operating officer for the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, told the board that the Insurance Department’s contract with marketing firm Mangan Holcomb Partners to promote the marketplace expired on Sept. 30 and has not been replaced with a new contract. As a result, the Arkansas Health Connector website, which was created under the first contract with Mangan Holcomb, is not being updated, she said.

The state Legislative Council voted last month not to review a proposed $4.5 million contract with Mangan Holcomb. The federal government and the Legislature had already appropriated federal funds for the contract, but some Republican members of the council argued that past promotion of the marketplace has been sufficient.

The council declined to review the contract in nearly a straight party-line vote, with all Republicans in the room opposing review and all but one Democrat supporting it. Gov. Mike Beebe said later he would listen to lawmakers’ concerns.

“We’re working on a workaround so that we can make sure the website stays functional,” Wilhite told the marketplace board Wednesday.

In an interview after the meeting, Wilhite said information on the site such as the names and phone numbers of licensed guides for the marketplace and a calendar of community events around the state related to the marketplace is now out of date.

The marketplace began operating Oct. 1, although many have been unable to enroll because of technical glitches and heavy traffic on the federal government’s marketplace site.

More than 36,000 people visited the state’s Arkansas Health Connector site, which is linked to the federal site, in the marketplace’s first two days, according to the Insurance Department.

“We’re working with the governor’s office, we’re going to speak with the Legislature. We’re going to see what we can do to get discreet portions of that contract funded, and that (website) would be one of the most important ones,” she said. “This is a prime time for us to have it as robust as possible.”

Wilhite added that “the Legislature might not have realized that cancelling the contract essentially would shut down the website.”

The board also voted Wednesday to ask the state Insurance Department to use up to $336,000 from an existing grant to pay consulting firm First Data Government Solutions to prepare a proposal for a federal grant to fund the board’s operations.

Atlanta-based First Data already has been providing services to the Insurance Department in connection with the marketplace, but additional funding is needed for the company to prepare a grant proposal for the board. Under the plan outlined Wednesday, the Insurance Department would be reimbursed for the expense as part of the federal grant.

After the board adjourned, its search committee met and discussed the possibility of hiring an interim executive director and/or a consultant to head the marketplace until a permanent executive director is chosen.

“I think our recommendation should be something along the lines of, OK, we think the full board should consider the possibility of hiring an interim director, and/or a consultant, or a combination thereof, with the idea that we have one director, interim-wise, with two support staff,” said Steve Faris of Hot Springs, the committee’s chairman.

Fred Bean*** of Little Rock said former state Insurance Commissioner Mike Pickens would be qualified for the job of interim executive director. He said he had spoken to Pickens and that “he is interested.”

During a discussion of how much to pay an executive director, the committee heard a report from legislative attorney Jessica Middleton-Kurylo, who offered examples of marketplace directors’ annual pay in four other states. She said directors are paid $225,000 in Connecticut, $155,000 in Hawaii, $105,000 in Minnesota and $100,000 in Kentucky.


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***This article has been corrected from its original version. Click here for the correction notice.