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Arkansas health insurance

AR ranked last on health, had nation's biggest drop in uninsured

Arkansas is known as The Natural State for its beautiful waterways and abundant wildlife. However, the state’s scores on public health indicators aren’t so pretty. See how Arkansas compares to other states in terms of health status and consider if expanded health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act can play a role in boosting the state’s overall health.

Health insurance carriers

Five carriers are offering individual health plans for 2016 through Arkansas’ health insurance exchange:

  • Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Celtic Insurance Company (Ambetter)
  • QualChoice, and QCA Health Plan (both owned by QualChoice Holdings –QualChoice offers POS plans; QHC Health Plan offers PPO plans)
  • UnitedHealthcare of Arkansas (new to the exchange for 2016; initially UHC will only sell plans in central Arkansas, but they’re planning to expand in 2017)

Arkansas also has an individual carrier that only sells plans outside the exchange: Coventry Health and Life.

Arkansas health ratings

Arkansas is ranked 50th on the Scorecard on State Health System Performance 2014, which compares the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The score is based on measures within four categories: access, prevention and treatment, avoidable hospital use and costs, and healthy lives. See the Arkansas Scorecard for rankings in the individual measures. Arkansas was ranked 49th in the 2013 evaluation.

America’s Health Rankings, most recently published in 2014, puts Arkansas at 49th. The low ranking arises from a high uninsured rate; high rates of obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity; limited availability of dentists; and low childhood immunization rates. Arkansas scored well for its low rate of binge drinking and limited health disparities across educational attainment levels.

The 2014 edition of Trust for America’s Health is another resource for reviewing a variety of public health indictors. See Key Health Data About Arkansas.

If the state-level evaluations don’t meet your needs, get county-by-county health rankings for Arkansas. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Population Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin compiled this detailed evaluation.

Arkansas and the Affordable Care Act

Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor were two of only three Democratic senators who voted against the Affordable Care Act. Lincoln lost her re-election bid in 2010. Pryor was defeated by Tom Cotton in 2014; Cotton has repeatedly supported repeal of the ACA.

Reps. Robert Berry, Vic Snyder, and Mike Ross – all Democrats – voted in favor of the ACA in the House. All three have since left office. Republican Rep. John Boozman voted against the bill and now represents Arkansas in the U.S. Senate.

At the state level, a bill to establish a state-run exchange was considered during the 2011 legislative session but did not pass. The Arkansas Department of Insurance then shifted gears and received grant money in February 2012 to develop a partnership exchange.

In September 2014, the board of the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, voted to transition to a state-run exchange. As of now, the state-run exchange plans to begin offering coverage during the 2017 open enrollment period, although Gov. Asa Hutchinson has questioned whether the state should move ahead with its plans, especially now that the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell means that subsidies are safe in the federally-facilitated marketplace. As of September 24, 2015, the state’s progress toward creating a state-run exchange is “on pause,” according to Gov. Hutchinson.

How has Obamacare helped Arkansas?

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act had a significant impact on Arkansas’ estimated uninsured rate, with the state having the highest percentage point drop in the country.

Arkansas had an uninsured rate of 22.5 percent in 2013. That number fell to 9.1 percent by the first half of 2015 – a 60 percent decrease. Enrollment in qualified health plans (QHPs), qualifications for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) under existing eligibility requirements, and Medicaid/CHIP qualifications under expanded eligibility rules all contributed to the drop.

Enrollment in qualified health plans

In Arkansas, 65,684 people – about 26 percent of the estimated eligible market in the state – enrolled in private health plans through during the second open enrollment period.  By June 30, 2015, effectuated enrollment in private plans through the Arkansas exchange stood at 51,436 people (attrition is a normal part of the individual market, particularly outside of open enrollment, when opportunities to enroll are limited). Of these enrollees, 90 percent were in plans with an advanced premium tax credit and 57.1 percent were receiving cost-sharing subsidies.

Arkansas first to propose Private Option for Medicaid

Arkansas was the first state to receive federal approval for Medicaid expansion through the Private Option. The approach uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize the purchase of QHPs through the marketplace for individuals earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. A number of other states have shown interest in and adopted the approach.

However, there are questions about whether Arkansas will continue to offer expanded Medicaid, and whether any changes will be made to the current program. Republicans took control of all state-level offices in the November 2014 elections and expanded their margins in both chambers of the state legislature. Reauthorization of Medicaid expansion, which is required annually, barely passed in 2014. Legislative opponents of Medicaid expansion have concerns about costs as well as political objections to the program, given its association with “Obamacare.”

Former Gov. Mike Beebe, who worked with Republican legislative leaders to craft the Private Option, faced a term limit and left office in January 2015. Asa Hutchinson, Beebe’s successor, initially did not commit to a position on Medicaid expansion. In August 2015, Hutchinson expressed his support for continued Medicaid expansion in Arkansas, but noted that he wants to make some changes to the current program, including a switch to requiring modest premiums for enrollees with incomes between 100 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level.  The changes that Hutchinson has proposed would require new or renewed waivers from CMS.

From 2013 through August 2015, total enrollment in Arkansas Medicaid/CHIP grew 46 percent, from 556,851 people, to 810,225. Some of the new enrollees were already eligible under the previous guidelines but didn’t enroll until after 2013. But the majority of new enrollees are newly eligible under the expanded guidelines. Medicaid enrollment lasts year-round, and these numbers continue to fluctuate.

Learn about Arkansas’ Medicaid and ARKids First (CHIP) programs.

Does Arkansas have a high-risk pool?

Before the ACA reformed the individual health insurance market, coverage was underwritten in almost all states, including Arkansas.  This meant that applicants’ medical histories were scrutinized before they could purchase coverage.  People with pre-existing conditions were often unable to purchase a plan in the private market, or could only get one that excluded pre-existing conditions.

The Arkansas Comprehensive Health Insurance Pool (CHIP) was created in 1996 to provide an alternative for people who were unable to purchase individual health insurance because of their medical history.

A major component of the ACA is the requirement that all policies be guaranteed issue starting in 2014.  Since there is no longer medical underwriting in the major medical individual market, the need for high risk pools has largely been eliminated. CHIP ceased operations on December 31, 2014, as applicants were able to secure guaranteed issue coverage with an effective date of January 1, 2014, through Arkansas’ health insurance exchange.

Arkansas Medicare enrollment

As of July 2015, Arkansas Medicare enrollment had reached 591,353, nearly 20 percent of the state’s population. Seventeen percent of the U.S. population is enrolled in Medicare. Arkansas is among the states with the highest percentage of Medicare recipients who qualify due to a disability: 26 percent. The other 74 percent of Arkansas Medicare beneficiaries qualify based on age alone.

Medicare pays about $8,949 annually per Arkansas recipient. The state spends about $4.7 billion annually on Medicare and ranks 31st in the nation for overall spending.

Arkansas Medicare beneficiaries who want to gain some additional benefits may select a Medicare Advantage plan instead of original Medicare. Nearly 21 percent of the state’s Medicare enrollees have Medicare Advantage plans instead of traditional plans. Nationwide, 32 percent of enrollees have Medicare Advantage.

Medicare Part D plans are also an option for those who want to add stand-alone prescription drug coverage to their traditional Medicare coverage. Half of all Arkansas Medicare recipients are enrolled in Part D plans compared with 43 percent of all Medicare recipients.

Health reform legislation in Arkansas

State legislative action regarding healthcare reform in Arkansas includes:

  • Gov. Hutchinson plans to continue creating an Arkansas-specific version of Medicaid expansion, and certain aspects of his plan will require new or renewed CMS waivers. Among other plans, his vision includes a premium requirement of no more than 2 percent of income for beneficiaries with household incomes between 100 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level. During the 2016 legislative session, state lawmakers will consider the extension of Medicaid expansion.

A round-up of other Arkansas state legislation related to health reform: