Arkansas Lawmakers Approve Insurance Exchange Funds

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013 4:38 pm  

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas lawmakers on Friday narrowly approved a $10.6 million grant to continue operating the insurance marketplace under the federal health overhaul, despite objections from some legislators over the law's rocky start.

The Arkansas Legislative Council approved the grant on a 21-18 vote, allowing the state insurance department to continue operating and promoting the online marketplace set up under the federal health law for consumers to shop for policies. Arkansas is operating its exchange in partnership with the federal government.

"This is basically to support Arkansans and help them go through this very complicated process," State Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford told reporters after the vote. "I commend the Legislature for approving it."

The grant was approved after Bradford and other state insurance department officials faced questions from GOP members of the panel who said they were concerned about the troubled implementation of the health care law. The problems have included Internet glitches that prevented many from signing up for coverage when the exchange launched in October, and cancellation notices some have received from insurance companies.

"I know you're trying to do what you think you're supposed to, but it's a bigger problem and the rules are changing," state Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, told Bradford.

With Friday's grant approved, the state has received more than $53 million to set up and operate the insurance exchange. Under the partnership, the federal government is responsible for several areas, including eligibility determinations, enrollment of individuals and operating the call center. The state determines criteria for certifying health insurance plans, monitoring plans for continued participating, providing direct consumer outreach and education and providing consumer complaint resolution.

Republicans who won control of the state Legislature partly on a vow to fight the health overhaul have regularly objected to the grants, and in September successfully blocked the state from spending $4.3 million in federal funds to advertise about it.

Bradford warned lawmakers that not approving the latest grant would threaten the partnership model and effectively cede control of the exchange to the federal government.

"When we pull back on these issues, we're just tossing that back to the federal level," Bradford said. "It scares the heck out of me and I know it does you all too."

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