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Covering the Uninsured: A Rally, a Plan – Now What?

PHOTO: Gov. Mike Beebe shares his plan to cover more uninsured Arkansans with Thursday's crowd on the State Capitol steps. Photo by Anna Strong.
PHOTO: Gov. Mike Beebe shares his plan to cover more uninsured Arkansans with Thursday's crowd on the State Capitol steps. Photo by Anna Strong.
March 8, 2013

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Hundreds of Arkansans showed up at the State Capitol on Thursday for a rally to support expanding Medicaid coverage in the state – and they may get the coverage, but in a different way.

Gov. Mike Beebe's compromise with the federal government might be more palatable to state lawmakers who don't like the Affordable Care Act. Instead of expanding Medicaid, it would allow the state to use the money to get more people covered in the new health insurance exchange.

Ray Hanley, president and CEO of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, says it's another way to get at the overall issue – that one in four Arkansans ages 19 to 64 is uninsured.

"I think people suffer and die prematurely in this state in numbers that exceed what we see in states with a lot better insurance coverage,” he says. “And that's what this is about changing."

Hanley's group is part of the coalition that organized Thursday's rally. The governor and lawmakers from both parties told the crowd that it would take compromise and bipartisanship to cover more of the state's working poor.

It takes three-quarters of both the House and Senate to pass this type of legislation. Reverend Stephen Copley, who chairs the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance, likens health care politics to last year's negotiations on the topic of prison reform.

"My sense is that a similar situation's occurring now,” he explains. “Lots of discussions, beginning to develop lots of agreement – and the moment it's filed, it may be able to go through in a couple of weeks. That is, unless any amendments are made."

Insurance companies are already gearing up for being part of the health insurance exchange – and they need to know if tens of thousands more people could be covered.

Anna Stone, director of health care policy with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, says lawmakers have no time to waste on the decision. The signup period begins in about seven months.

"That is happening soon,” Stone says. “So, we want to make sure that there are options for everyone when that comes around. That's the key to this – if we wait, almost 170,000 Arkansans are left out of affordable options on January first."

The big question is how much more private insurance on the exchange would cost compared to the relative bargain of Medicaid. Some insurers have said they will charge lower rates for policies obtained on the exchange, but those private policies also pay doctors and hospitals more than Medicaid does for services.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - AR