Ark. Lawmakers Look at Expanding Program for Uninsured Workers

March 22, 2006

Arkansas legislators say they would like to see an expansion of a program that offers health coverage to uninsured workers.

Arkansas’ chief health officer, Joe Thompson, outlined the Arkansas Safety Net Benefit Program for a legislative panel March 20.

Thompson said the program, still in the “rapid development process,” does not offer any catastrophic coverage, but offers some health coverage for workers at businesses that haven’t had any health coverage in the past year.

“It’s not an insurance product, but a safety-net package,” Thompson said.

The program, which Gov. Mike Huckabee announced earlier this month, will let small to mid-sized employers enroll workers in a plan financed with a mix of employer, state and federal funds.

In Arkansas currently, only 26 percent of small businesses offer health insurance, according to the federal Health and Human Services Department.

Thompson said the state hopes to launch the program, which will affect about 80,000 people, in early 2007. The program will cost the state $18 million over a five-year period.

Thompson said there about 420,000 Arkansans without insurance and said the program will help give them some preventive coverage.

“This tries to give (small businesses) a foothold in the insurance market and provide some acute preventive-care services in the hope that, over time, either they will be able to step up to a full benefits package or we can modify the state programs to offer a more full benefits package,” Thompson said.

State Sen. Jack Critcher, D-Batesville, said he wished the program would offer more coverage but said he hopes it will at least offer some care to the uninsured.

“Catastrophic coverage would probably prevent over half the bankruptcies in this state,” Critcher said. “Hopefully maybe it will enable people to go get preventive care and stave off maybe a heart attack or something in the future.”

Rep. Tommy Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia, said he hoped the state can find a way to offer more care under the new program.

“Hopefully, we can expand upon this,” Roebuck said.

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