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The Associated Press October 11, 2011, 4:15PM ET

Ark. insurance officials look at health exchange

Arkansas insurance officials held a summit Tuesday to discuss how to set up an insurance exchange required under the federal health care overhaul, prompting complaints from Republican legislators who have objected to the state seeking funds for the program.

The daylong summit came more than a week after Gov. Mike Beebe decided against asking the federal government for a $3.8 million planning and study grant after GOP lawmakers objected to the move.

The exchange would be an online marketplace for individuals and small businesses to shop for health insurance. The federal law requires states to either set up an exchange or face having one established for them by the federal government.

Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford, who supports establishing a state exchange, said the debate comes down to whether Arkansas will control a key part of its health care system and is separate from the debate over the federal health law.

"I've been trying to define this issue as a home-rule issue to serve consumers in Arkansas," Bradford told a roomful of officials, lawmakers and others at the summit. "I keep getting drug into the national issue."

Beebe decided against applying for the planning grant late last month after Republican lawmakers said they opposed seeking the money, in part because of other states' pending lawsuits challenging the health care law. Beebe has said he'd prefer to see the exchange run by the state, but a bill authorizing its setup stalled in the Legislature this year and he has said he doesn't plan to issue an executive order for the exchange.

The state could apply again in December, and Bradford said it's possible that the state could seek to set up a "hybrid" exchange where portions are controlled by the state and other parts controlled by the federal government. Bradford said the state would likely seek between $3 million and $4 million for planning that system, but acknowledged he had not talked with Beebe about that idea.

Republicans questioned the purpose of the summit and called the meeting a one-sided promotion for the exchange.

"Honestly, it was a taxpayer funded propaganda road show," said House Minority Leader John Burris, R-Harrison.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, also questioned why the summit was needed.

"If we're not going to move forward, I don't think it's a good use of taxpayer dollars," Dismang said.

Bradford said the department was required to hold the summit under an existing grant it received from the federal government, and said it was not an effort to lobby for the exchange. Bradford said he believed the "hybrid" exchange idea left one more option for the state rather than ceding complete control.

"I want the Legislature to have that option to look and see if that would be more agreeable," he said.


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