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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace Finance Director Tony Beeler (from left) and Director Angela Lowther discuss a plan to reduce the number of workers who help people sign up for health coverage at Wednesday’s board meeting in Little Rock with marketplace board members Greg Hatcher and Mark Meadors. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

A state board on Wednesday decided to reduce the number of outreach workers, known as "navigators," available to help Arkansans sign up for health insurance through Sept. 30.

The Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace had planned to provide funding for 11 of the workers with the expectation that they would be needed to help people affected by a change in the eligibility criteria for the state's expanded Medicaid program, known as Arkansas Works.

The change would lower the cutoff for eligibility to people with incomes of up to the poverty level, instead of 138 percent of the poverty level. Officials estimated that will result in about 60,000 Arkansas Works enrollees being moved off the program.

State officials had hoped to implement the change starting Jan. 1, but President Donald Trump's administration had not approved it as of Wednesday.

"We just don't need to pay for something that we're not going to get," said marketplace board member Mark Meadors, a Little Rock employee benefits consultant.

The marketplace board voted to reduce its spending on navigators from March 1 to Sept. 30 by two-thirds, from $318,052 to $106,017.

The reduced amount would be enough to pay for about four navigators, Jim Miles, founder of Enroll the Ridge of Jonesboro, said after the meeting.

Under a contract with the marketplace, the nonprofit group employs some of the navigators and contracts with other organizations to provide some.

Meadors said the marketplace board can always increase navigator funding if the state's request to change the Arkansas Works eligibility criteria is approved.

Fully training and obtaining a license for a new navigator takes about two months, Miles said said.

Chris Hopper, the marketplace's director of operations, said about 40 percent of Arkansans who signed up for coverage on the state's insurance exchange during the most recent enrollment period, which ran from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, did so with the help of an agent or broker, up from about 30 percent during the previous enrollment period.

The percentage of enrollees receiving such help last year was higher in Arkansas than in the other four states -- Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon -- that are considered to have state-run exchanges but use the federal sign-up website instead of one of their own, he said.

In addition to changing the income cutoff for eligibility in Arkansas Works, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has requested permission to impose a work requirement on enrollees.

Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the state expects to receive word on the work requirement soon, but approval for the change in eligibility "may take a little more time."

He said Hutchinson isn't opposed to reducing the number of navigators as long as Arkansans have access through the Department of Human Services, health care providers and other sources for help understanding their health insurance options.

More than 285,000 Arkansans were enrolled in Arkansas Works as of Jan. 1.

Created by the state Legislature in 2013, the marketplace certifies the plans sold on the state's health insurance exchange through healthcare.gov and helps people enroll.

Through federal tax credits, the exchange makes subsidies available to many people who don't qualify for government programs such as Arkansas Works and have incomes of up to 400 percent of the poverty level.

Because they would no longer be eligible for Arkansas Works, many of the people affected by the change would be eligible for the tax-credit subsidies.

Almost 69,000 Arkansans signed up or re-enrolled in such plans for coverage taking effect Jan. 1, down from about 70,000 who signed up for 2017 coverage.

Nationwide, nearly 11.8 million people signed up for exchange coverage for 2018, about 3 percent fewer than the number who signed up for 2017 coverage, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Metro on 02/08/2018

Print Headline: Health sign-up help cut for now; Board vote pares ‘navigator’ funds

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