LITTLE ROCK — Mike Holland of Little Rock met with a licensed guide for the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace last week because he wanted to find out what the marketplace had to offer for his adult son, Matthew.
"He had a job in Washington, D.C., and he lost it and has moved back home. So we’re looking into whether this would cover him, because right now he doesn’t have any insurance," Holland said.
He said what he learned was encouraging.
"We were wanting to compare this to him just going out and buying insurance (outside the exchange)," Holland said. "It looks like it’s subsidized in his case — maybe 100 percent."
Holland is among thousands of Arkansans who have inquired about the marketplace since it began operating Tuesday. Officials say the public response to the opening of insurance marketplaces, also known as insurance exchanges, under the federal Affordable Care Act has been overwhelming.
That’s literally true in the case of the federal marketplace website, which Arkansans must visit if they want to enroll online because Arkansas chose not to establish a state-based exchange. The site has been down much of the time because of system overload.
According to the state Insurance Department, 36,383 people visited the Arkansas Health Connector website in the first 48 hours after the marketplace launched, 16,500 of whom clicked on an "Enroll now" button and were directed to the federal marketplace site.
Officials said they do not yet know how many Arkansans went directly to the federal site without going through the state’s site, but they expect to have that information in a few days.
The state Department of Human Services said last week that 55,400 clients of DHS programs expressed interest in signing up for the private option, Arkansas’ plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to buy insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
About 500,000 people are expected to enroll in the exchange, about half of them under the private option. The Affordable Care Act requires nearly all Americans to have health insurance starting in January or face financial penalties.
Proponents of the law known as Obamacare say the strong public response shows that, despite continuing political clashes over the law, people are eager to learn what it has to offer them.
"I think the fact that you have had millions of (website) hits at the federal level, and you had lots of hits in Arkansas as well, I think is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of interest," said Rich Huddleston, executive director of the nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
"That interest is only going to build over time once those systems are up, and I think it does vindicate supporters of Affordable Care Act," he said.
Huddleston said the response shows how great the need has been for affordable insurance.
"For most folks it is an economic issue. They don’t have affordable health care coverage," he said.
Candis Collins, who advocated for passage of the law as a member of Health Care for America Now!, said she believes Americans will come to embrace the Affordable Care Act just as they now embrace Social Security.
Collins is now one of about 500 guides in Arkansas trained to help people enroll in the marketplace. She said she met with 15 people last week who were eager to learn about their options.
"Of course, people that need it are not going to be negative about it," she said.
State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, said Friday, "I think you have a certain segment that, yeah, they are looking for health insurance options, and with the government subsidy, they’re going to look at it."
But King said poll after poll has shown that most people do not want the law.
"Obamacare is hugely unpopular in Arkansas, and a majority of Americans want to see it repealed," he said.
The insurance marketplaces opened on the same day that a government shutdown took effect because Congress was unable to reach a budget agreement by the end of the federal fiscal year. Republicans, who control the House but not the Senate, have demanded that Obamacare be defunded or delayed as a condition of a budget agreement.
Huddleston said the timing of the GOP lawmakers’ stand against the law is no coincidence.
"People who oppose the law know that once you get millions of people nationwide, or in Arkansas’ case hundreds of thousands of people who currently don’t have coverage, once they start to get coverage … it’s going to be very difficult for opponents six months from now, nine months from now, to make an effort to undermine the Affordable Care Act," he said.
"I think this whole battle in D.C. is reflective of the fact that they know that and so they’re making one last-ditch effort," Huddleston said.
Jason Cline, Arkansas state director of Americans For Prosperity, which opposes the law, acknowledged that the law would be harder to turn back after it is fully implemented.
"Ronald Reagan always said that the closest thing on earth to eternal life is a government program," Cline said. "Taking anything away once something has been granted is a very difficult process."
Cline noted that the nation is $16.7 trillion in debt and said it is "troubling" to contemplate the political difficulties involved "if this thing turns out to be a budget buster and bad for the health care economy, as we believe it will be."
Dec. 15 is the deadline to apply through the marketplace for coverage that will become effective Jan. 1.
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