Dozens Attend Sign-Up Event on 1st Day of Arkansas Health Insurance Exchange

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas officials on Tuesday called the launch of the state's online marketplace for insurance under the federal health care law historic for the thousands of uninsured residents expected to sign up, though problems with the federal website delayed online enrollment for some.

Dozens of people met with guides at the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service for a daylong sign-up event to mark the start of open enrollment for the exchange. State officials expect about 500,000 people to sign up for coverage during the enrollment period, which ends March 31.

"It's something they've never had before, which is quality insurance at an affordable price," Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said at Tuesday's event.

Several people who attended the event, however, said officials were unable to sign them up online because of problems with the federal website Arkansas is using. State officials said applying by mail and phone also are options.

"They're very nice, but they can't get to their own website to help us enroll," Mary Frances Perkins, who is uninsured and has Parkinson's disease, said of the workers signing her and others up. "It's a little frustrating."

Officials collected information from Perkins and others who were unable to enroll online, so guides could contact them later to help them sign up for coverage. State insurance officials said the slowdown with the federal site wasn't surprising, given the high number of people trying to enroll the first day.

"I would tell people to keep trying," said Cynthia Crone, who leads the Insurance Department's Health Benefits Exchange Partnership division. "First day of anything this big, it's not unexpected that we'd have a few glitches but we have time to get it worked out."

Despite the online glitches, Perkins said she was looking forward to signing up for coverage and planned to try again through the federal site. She said she hasn't had insurance for the past three years.

She criticized lawmakers in Washington for shutting down the federal government over efforts to defund or delay the overhaul.

"I think Congress needs to be spanked," said Perkins, 54, who lives in Carlisle. "We've had two years of this being a law, the Supreme Court has said it's constitutional and now we come down to the final week and they want to stop it. I think it's a little ridiculous."

Karen Guthrie, a part-time library page who lives in Little Rock, said she got useful information about the exchange despite workers not being able to sign her up online. Guthrie, 56, said she currently cannot afford insurance and has been without coverage the past eight years.

"I think this is an incredibly important thing for our government to do," she said. "It's economically so beneficial to the United States."

About half of the people expected to sign up through the exchange will do so under a plan the federal government approved last week allowing Arkansas to use Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for 250,000 low-income workers. The plan was approved as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health care law.

Bradford said his department is looking at alternatives for promoting the exchange, after lawmakers on Monday rejected a $4.5 million advertising contract. Gov. Mike Beebe has said he doesn't plan to move forward with the contract, which would use federal funds to air ads on television, radio and other platforms.

"We certainly need to have some process where we can educate the public on how to navigate this pretty complicated system," Bradford said. "This is new to everyone, so hopefully the Legislature will reconsider that decision."

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