LITTLE ROCK — State lawmakers on Tuesday endorsed spending nearly $16.5 million in federal grant money to help the state set up an insurance exchange under the new health care expansion law.

The Arkansas Legislative Council approved spending the grant funds on a 23-9 vote.

The vote was requested by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, who opposed the so-called private option for health care expansion approved during the recently ended regular legislative session that proposes to use federal money to buy private insurance for thousands of the state’s working poor.

"I think everyone knows about these grants," said Meeks. "I don’t have any particular question."

Cynthia Crone, director of health insurance exchange planning for the state Insurance Department, said the state has already received $43 million from the federal government for the exchange and that the nearly $16.5 million grant would be used for enrollment assistance, outreach education, staffing claim management functions to be ready for open enrollment and beyond next year. Open enrollment this year is Oct. 1.

Crone said the state is contracting with 30 organizations that will provide workers known as guides to help consumers enroll in insurance through the exchange. The state will use federal money to fund the contracts and expects about 637 guides to be hired at $12 an hour.

Guides will be one of four types of assisters who will help people use the exchange. The others are navigators, who will be hired by the federal government; certified application counselors, who will be employees of entities such as hospitals, community health centers or consumers nonprofit organizations, and insurance agents or brokers.

The assisters are required under the federal Affordable Care Act and are needed with or without the private option.

Training for the four groups of assisters will be provided through the state’s two-year colleges and will begin mid-June.

Last week, state Department of Human Services officials said they expect to submit a request in August for a federal waiver allowing Arkansas use use federal money to purchase private insurance for the state’s working poor.

Under the private option, an estimated 250,000 currently uninsured Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level —$15,856 for an individual, $32,499 for a family of four — will receive federal subsidies to buy private insurance through the exchange instead of being added to the state Medicaid rolls.

The Insurance Department also expects that during the first enrollment period, which runs Oct. 1, 2013-March 31, 2014, an additional 211,000 people will enroll in the exchange and buy insurance using federal subsidies that are available to people earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.