Official: Lack of funds hindering promotion of insurance marketplace to young people


LITTLE ROCK — A lack of funding is hampering efforts to promote the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace to young, healthy people — a population that is crucial to the marketplace’s success, a state insurance official said Wednesday.

The state Legislative Council voted last month not to review a proposed $4.5 million contract between the Insurance Department and a Little Rock marketing firm for promotion of the marketplace, also known as the insurance exchange. The Legislature had already appropriated federal funding for the contract, but because of the council’s action the contract has not been signed.

“Colorado has their young outreach program, Oregon, Washington, have some really clever ads to reach out to that young, healthy population. Nothing’s going on to reach out to them (in Arkansas),” said Cynthia Crone, director of the Insurance Department’s Health Benefits Exchange Partnership Division.

Experts say the success of the marketplace — and of the federal Affordable Care Act — depends on the involvement of young, healthy people because they counterbalance the risk of insuring older, sicker people. Crone said many have been frustrated by technical glitches with the federal marketplace site, and younger people may be less motivated than others to keep trying to enroll.

“The people with the pent-up demand who are very sick have been waiting on this, and they’ll keep on till they get in. We’ve got to have those others in,” she said.

Because of the lack of funding, the Insurance Department has been unable to update the Arkansas Health Connector website, the state’s website that contains information about the marketplace and sends visitors to the federal site to enroll. The site was created under a previous contract that expired Sept. 30.

“Right now our website activity has fallen off, our calls have fallen off,” Crone said. “People are frustrated; we’re hopefully going to have to do some push out to say, ‘It’s up and running again, here’s what you do, here’s your alternatives, here’s what you can do for paper applications.’”

Crone spoke to the Arkansas News Bureau after attending a meeting of the marketplace’s board of directors Wednesday. She told the board that state insurance officials are “working to get information to people the best that we can.”

That work has included manning information booths at the state fair and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, both held this month in Little Rock, Crone said later.

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said Wednesday the governor’s office has been talking with legislators in an effort to find an agreement on spending at least some federal money on public outreach, but “so far (we) haven’t found it.”

Legislative approval is not required for the Insurance Department to spend money that the Legislature has appropriated, but Beebe has said he will respect legislators’ wishes.

The Legislative Council’s vote to block the promotion contract was nearly a straight party-line vote, with all Republicans in the room voting to block it and all but one Democrat voting in support of the contract.

Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, who was not present for the vote but has said he supports the council’s decision, addressed the marketplace’s board Wednesday and said his vision is that “Arkansans become the most informed consumers of health care in America.”

Sanders said later in an interview he did not think his statement was inconsistent with his position on the promotion contract. He said the rejected contract was a “missed opportunity” because its goal was simply to get Arkansans enrolled in the exchange and not to educate them about broader issues.

“When I talk about being informed consumers of health care, I’m talking about how to function and how to make both quantitative and qualitative decisions about their health care dollar — what they’re spending it on,” he said. “Being informed consumers of health care really starts with forcing the conversation.”