LITTLE ROCK — A coalition of Arkansas advocacy groups said Tuesday it is launching an effort to promote enrollment in health insurance in the face of legislation that bans similar efforts by state agencies.

LITTLE ROCK — A coalition of Arkansas advocacy groups said Tuesday it is launching an effort to promote enrollment in health insurance in the face of legislation that bans similar efforts by state agencies.


This year, the state Legislature approved budget bills that included language by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, barring the state from promoting the health insurance exchange and the private option, Arkansas’ version of Medicaid expansion. The legislation also bars public funding for the activities of in-person assisters, more than 500 of whom were working to help Arkansans enroll in health plans before the ban took effect July 1.


In a news conference Tuesday, the newly formed coalition Arkansans for Coverage said it will do what it can to fill the void.


"In order for Arkansans to be aware of and enroll in new, affordable health care options in Arkansas, they first need to know that it exists," said Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, one of the groups in the coalition.


"Since the Legislature limited the ability of Arkansas state agencies to use available public funding to help inform our neighbors and our friends about health coverage, private groups are stepping in to fill the gap," he said.


The Darragh Foundation of Little Rock has contributed $300,000 for the effort, and the coalition hopes to secure more private funding.


Sarah Pearce, health care policy fellow at Arkansas Advocates, said the coalition will provide funding for four in-person assisters and will provide resources such as newsletters, webinars and peer-to-peer information sharing to aid those assisters as well as others who are being sponsored by other private sources.


A media buy to educate the public likely will be beyond the coalition’s means, Huddleston said.


"Really it’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of the outreach and enrollment that needs to be done, but with Arkansas leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table for outreach and enrollment, efforts like this have to step in with whatever private funding we can find," he said.


Michael Fite of White Hall praised the work of in-person assisters, saying he and his wife, Susan, struggled for almost two months to obtain insurance coverage until they were connected with an in-person assister who guided them through the process.


"I’ve got a high school diploma," he said. "I’m not college educated, but I’ve got a pretty square head on my shoulders, and I was lost."


According to the state Department of Human Services, 194,257 Arkansans have enrolled in the so-called private option, which uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Another 38,787 Arkansans with higher incomes have enrolled in plans through the federally facilitated insurance exchange, according to the state Insurance Department.


Other groups in the coalition are the Arkansas Hospital Association, the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance, the Arkansas Minority Health Consortium, Partners for Inclusive Communities and Community Health Centers of Arkansas.