LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- State health officials said Thursday that more than 66,000 Arkansas residents applied for health insurance under the state's Medicaid expansion and slightly more than 62,000 of the applications were approved.
Arkansas was granted a waiver from part of the federal health care law so that it could use Medicaid funds to subsidize private insurance for low-income residents, instead of expanding the public program. State officials expect 500,000 people to sign up by the March 31 deadline.
Cindy Crone, director of the health benefits exchange for the state Health Department, told the legislative Public Health Committee that 71 medical insurance plans are available from four providers and 24 dental plans were certified from five dental insurers.
Residents can apply for coverage online but some have traveled to county health units to use computer kiosks or fill out paper applications, Crone said.
The plans vary in the amount of coverage they provide and costs are based on the income level of applicants. Most insurers charge tobacco users higher prices.
Availability of the plans varies by region of the state.
The greatest number of plans — 41 — are available in central and northwest Arkansas. The fewest plans are in the southeast and southwest, where 11 are available.
Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said the program is in its infancy and he expects more providers to emerge in the years ahead.
He said insurers have an incentive to broaden their territories.
"It'll be an economic expansion for those companies," Bradford said.
Insurers had to show they had enough providers in their systems before they could be approved to offer insurance in one of the state's seven coverage regions.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said that state residents are having trouble finding out about the plan.
"I wish we could do more in educating our public," Flowers said.
"It's a very complex transition," Bradford replied.
The state is in the process of certifying guides to help match residents with appropriate health coverage plans.
Crone said 401 guides have finished all three phases of training but only 210 have been licensed so far by the Health Department. The agency wants to employ 537 of the guides. The guides, also called navigators, are paid by the federal government.
State Medicaid Director Andy Allison said the program has $215 million in the budget for the current fiscal year for coverage under the private option. That number will grow, with a sharp uptick next fiscal year, which will be the first full year in which the program is funded, he said.
The money is coming from the federal government, which is covering the first three years of the Medicaid expansion.
The state officials didn't have information on how many Arkansans in total have applied for health insurance through the federal system.
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