LITTLE ROCK — Seeing a shift in Republican attitudes around the country toward federally mandated insurance exchanges, Gov. Mike Beebe is taking another look at whether Arkansas might pursue a state-run exchange, a spokesman said Friday.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the Democratic governor sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius affirming that Arkansas intends to pursue a partnership with the federal government to run its insurance exchange, but an hour after the letter was mailed the Obama administration announced it was extending the deadline to Dec. 14 for states to decide the course they want to pursue.
"That extension came from a request from the Republican Governors Association," DeCample said. "We’ve seen the atmosphere start to shift a little bit post-election, and so while our letter is going off to HHS, we are going to follow up and call them and say, ‘Hold on to that letter. With the new deadline there is still a chance that it could be amended.’"
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, nearly everyone is required to have health insurance and every state is required to have an exchange where people can shop for insurance plans that suit their needs. Beebe said last year that because of Republican legislators’ opposition to a totally state-run exchange, Arkansas would seek to operate its exchange in partnership with the federal government.
DeCample said Friday that Beebe wants to know whether the Republicans elected to the Legislature on Nov. 6 are adamantly opposed to a state-run exchange or are open to considering it. State Insurance Department officials say an exchange run by the state could better respond to the needs of Arkansans than a federally run exchange or a partnership exchange.
Republicans will control 51 seats in the 100-member House and 21 seats in the 35-member Senate in the legislative session that begins in January.
State Sen. Michael Lamoureux, who will serve as Senate president pro tem in the coming session, said Friday he remained opposed to a state-run exchange.
"I’m open to hearing new information about why we should do something different, but I haven’t yet heard anything that would make me change my personal opinion," he said.
Lamoureux said one of his main objections to a state-run exchange is that "some of the harsher penalties for employers and things like that were supposedly triggered by the state exchange itself."
State DHS official Cynthia Crone, who is in charge of planning for Arkansas’ partnership exchange, said Friday there are no penalties for employers that would only apply under a state-run exchange.
"The penalties for businesses are exactly the same whether it’s federal, partnership or state," she said.
Crone said the penalties for employers who refuse to offer their employees insurance coverage would not apply to small businesses — those with 50 or fewer employees — or to businesses that already offer affordable insurance plans.
Some legislators have said they oppose any involvement by the state in operating Arkansas’ exchange. Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, said earlier this month, "If it’s going to happen, let the federal government do it."