LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- After two elections and two legislative sessions that were centered on the federal health care overhaul, Arkansas is preparing to implement a key part of the 2010 health law with the launch of its online insurance marketplace.
Hundreds of agents, brokers and guides will be prepared Tuesday to help as the state launches its insurance exchange, an online marketplace where consumers can shop for coverage. With about 500,000 Arkansans expected to sign up for coverage through the exchange, state insurance officials say they're expecting to face some challenges in the coming days.
"Anything big that's ever happened like this isn't 100 percent smooth on the first day," said Cynthia Crone, who leads the Insurance Department's Health Benefits Exchange Partnership division. "There's always going to be unknowns."
At least two of the biggest unknowns surrounding the exchange have been resolved in the past week. First, state insurance officials announced the rates that the four insurers participating in the exchange will charge for the 71 plans in the marketplace.
The premiums came in 10 percent less than the state's forecasters predicted, with rates for half of the insurers participating in the exchange unchanged from what the companies originally proposed.
The premiums will vary based on age, geography, family size and tobacco use, with three levels of plans — bronze, silver and gold — available. Bronze plans are likely to have lower premiums but higher out-of-pocket costs if medical services are provided. There also are high-deductible plans available for young adults under the age of 30 and certain other individuals.
State insurance officials say they expect few Arkansans to pay the total premium amount, since many will qualify for tax credits available.
The state also won approval for its plan last week to use federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance through the exchange for thousands of low-income workers. The roughly 250,000 people expected to sign up for the private option are expected to make up half of the people using the state's insurance exchange.
But questions still remain about the future of the exchange. A legislative panel on Monday plans to vote on whether to approve the state's $4.5 million marketing and outreach contract for the exchange. The contract would use federal money to pay for television, radio and newspaper ads as well as billboards and direct mail pieces between Oct. 1 and March 31.
The Legislative Council voted in September to delay reviewing the contract until the exchange's rates were released, and some Republicans on the panel have said they plan to vote against spending any more public money to promote the marketplace.
Crone said the contract is necessary to help educate the public about the exchange as open enrollment begins.
"Without them getting that information, I'm concerned they won't know how to take action," Crone said.
State insurance officials say they don't have an estimate of how many people will sign up for coverage in the first day or week of open enrollment. The biggest sign-up event Tuesday will be held at the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service, where the Insurance Department plans to hold a daylong kickoff event for the exchange.
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