LITTLE ROCK — More than 55,000 Arkansans who are eligible for subsidized health insurance under Arkansas’ so-called "private option" have notified the state Department of Human Services that they want to enroll, DHS officials said Wednesday.

LITTLE ROCK — More than 55,000 Arkansans who are eligible for subsidized health insurance under Arkansas’ so-called "private option" have notified the state Department of Human Services that they want to enroll, DHS officials said Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, members of the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace heard a presentation on the plans available through the marketplace and discussed hiring an executive director.

In September, DHS mailed letters to 132,000 households of adult Arkansans who are clients of various DHS programs and asked the recipients to sign the letters and return them if they wanted coverage under the private option. The agency has received 55,400 responses.

"This in an incredible response to a single letter. People in every county said they wanted to sign up," DHS Director John Selig said in a news release.

The people who returned the letters will receive another letter this week informing them how to enroll. The agency also said it identified 2,539 children as uninsured and enrolled them in the ARKids First insurance program.

The private option is the state’s plan to use federal Medicaid money to pay for Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to buy private health insurance through the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost will increase gradually to 10 percent.

The marketplace launched Tuesday. An estimated 500,000 Arkansans are expected to buy insurance through the marketplace, about half of them through the private option.

Selig said DHS does not have contact information for all 250,000 people who are estimated to be eligible for the private option because many are not currently clients of any DHS program.

Dec. 15 is the deadline to apply for coverage that will be effective Jan. 1.

Heavy web traffic prevented many from maneuvering through the federal marketplace website on Tuesday. State Insurance Department spokeswoman Heather Haywood said that despite the technical difficulties, thousands of Arkansans at least were able to obtain information about the marketplace, if not enroll.

The Arkansas Health Connector website received 22,693 visits on Tuesday, and the agency received 826 calls to its call center, Haywood said. Also, 322 people attended a kickoff event for the marketplace at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

"People are eager to look at the plans," Haywood said.

On Wednesday, the marketplace’s board of directors heard a presentation from Cynthia Crone, director of planning for the marketplace, on the plans that are available to Arkansans.

Different levels of medical plans offer different deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance. Gold plans, the most expensive, generally cover 80 percent of qualifying medical expenses, silver plans cover 70 percent and bronze plans, the least expensive, cover 60 percent, Crone said.

Premiums vary according to age, place of residence, family size and whether a person smokes.

To show the difference tobacco use can make, Crone said the average monthly premium for a 20-year-old would be $154 for a non-smoker and $166 for a smoker. The average premium for a 60-year would be $681 for a non-smoker and $765 for a smoker, before tax credits, she said.

To show the difference place of residence can make, Crone said a 40-year-old Hot Springs resident who buys a silver plan would pay a minimum monthly premium of $263, but the same person living in Little Rock would pay at least $294 a month, before tax credits.

People who obtain insurance under the private option do not have to pay premiums or deductibles. People who earn between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level may have some cost sharing in the form of co-pays or co-insurance.

Tax credits are available to others who earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The federal poverty level is $11,490 for an individual and $23,550 for a family of four.

After the board adjourned, its Search Committee met and discussed the need to hire an executive director. The committee’s chairman, Steve Faris of Hot Springs, said he believed the search should be nationwide.

Faris also suggested that until a director is chosen, the board could hire an interim director, an interim staff and possibly a consultant.

"I just think it’s important that we not rush to hire a director," he said.

Selig, a member of the committee, suggested that the members look at how much pay marketplace directors in other states receive.

"We do want to get somebody good. I don’t think we want to pay like the lottery if we can help it," he said.

"Let’s talk about something else," joked Faris, a former member of the state Lottery Commission and a former state legislator.

The Lottery Commission controversially hired its first director, Ernie Passailaigue, for $324,000 a year in 2009, before Faris was a member. Passailaigue resigned in September 2011; his successor, Bishop Woosley, makes $165,000 a year.