Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers on Monday rejected a $4.5 million advertising contract for the state's insurance exchange under the federal health care law, complicating the launch of the online marketplace a day before residents can begin signing up for coverage.
The 26-15 vote by the Arkansas Legislative Council against the contract effectively halts plans to promote the exchange. Gov. Mike Beebe said that for now, he doesn't plan to move forward with the advertising contract, despite having the authority to do so.
The contract called for the state to spend federal funds to promote the exchange - where consumers can shop for and buy health plans - through a multi-platform advertising campaign that included television and radio spots. Open enrollment for the exchange begins Tuesday, and state officials expect 500,000 to participate.
The vote was along party lines, with 25 Republicans and one Democrat voting against the contract. Fifteen Democrats voted for it.
"I think it's rather partisan, frankly," Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford told reporters afterward. "It's unfortunate, because this is just an educational process to tell people how they can secure coverage on the federal exchange."
Beebe, a Democrat, said he's open to talking with lawmakers about alternatives for promoting the exchange.
"How do they expect to get the word out?" Beebe said at a news conference. "Now maybe they've got a better way, and I'm certainly open to listening if they've got a better way to get that message out to people. Maybe they want less money spent on this kind of message getting out, or more on a different kind?"
Lawmakers initially delayed the contract earlier in September after members said they wanted to first see the rates insurers would charge on the exchange. The state Insurance Department released those rates last week.
But the advertising plan still faced heavy opposition from Republicans, who won control of the state Legislature last year partly by running against the federal health care law and vowing to fight it at the state level. It also comes as Republicans in several other southern states have declined federal money to promote the exchanges while others have made it more difficult for nonprofit organizations to provide information about them.
Several GOP members on the committee cited uncertainty about the law's future, pointing to the fight in Washington over efforts to tie defunding the Affordable Care Act to any spending measures.
"The big picture is, we're just an election cycle away from this possibly changing," said Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.
The contract was in addition to $4.3 million lawmakers had previously approved in advertising for the run-up to the exchange's opening. It would have covered advertising between Tuesday and March 31, when open enrollment ends.
The vote also comes days after the federal government approved a plan to allow Arkansas to use Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for about 250,000 workers through the insurance exchange. The plan was approved as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health law.
State Surgeon General Joe Thompson said continuing that marketing campaign is needed to educate consumers and guard against scammers trying to take advantage of them.
"Slowing down or doing nothing places your constituents at risk," Thompson told the committee.
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