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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Healthy Results

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While we have been talking about Arkansas’s Private Option health-insurance program for a long time now, it’s actually only been active for five months. Those who work but can’t otherwise afford health insurance have only been signing up for eight months. Still, we are beginning to get some real data about our progress so far, and there is encouragement that this trailblazing experiment can live up to its potential.

The first piece of good news this past month came from our hospitals. Except for individual Arkansans who enroll, the hospitals have the most to gain or lose from the Private Option. One of the major benefits we anticipated was a drop in uncompensated care, particularly in emergency rooms. During the first three months of 2014, Arkansas hospitals reported a 24 percent drop in uninsured emergency room use. Overall, ER visits were down two percent. We can infer from this combination that more people who arrive in the Emergency Room for care now have insurance to help cover those costs.

In addition, uninsured hospital admissions are down 30 percent. All of this means that the burden of uncompensated care is beginning to lessen. Care provided to those who cannot pay for it eventually becomes a hidden tax on all of us who do have insurance. We expect that, as time passes, the Private Option will help decrease overall numbers of ER visits and admissions. The more people become insured, the more they will be able to seek out treatment and preventive medicine before conditions warrant emergency care and/or hospitalization.

This survey of 42 hospitals was not comprehensive for every acute-care center in the State, but it’s a good snapshot of early progress. Where we find more definitive numbers is in the continued enrollment of Arkansans in the Private Option.

From October through April, 170,000 Arkansans in all 75 counties qualified for the Private Option. Of those eligible, 64 percent are between the ages of 19 and 44. Having a younger, healthier population enrolled is important to the viability of any insurance pool and helps keep insurance rates in check. Because of the Private Option, Arkansas has one of the youngest health-insurance exchanges in the nation. If we can sustain that youthful interest, it will benefit Arkansas taxpayers even more in three years, when the State must pay a small portion of the program’s costs.

After a lot of hard work, we’re now seeing real dividends coming from the Private Option. One of its primary architects, Medicaid Director Andy Allison, is leaving State government to work in the private sector, but won’t be leaving Arkansas. I want to personally thank Andy for his tireless work on both the Private Option and our Payment Improvement Initiative. We wouldn’t be where we are today without his knowledge and expertise.

Again, it’s still early. Next year will see adjustments to Private Option insurance policies and rates, along with the rollout of Health Savings Accounts. There will surely be growing pains along the way, but this program will continue to be a model for other states seeking to expand access to health care and take better care of their citizens.