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Arkansas health hub's chief gets raise; her salary now $150,000

Marketplace board ends contract for insurance ‘navigators’

*CORRECTION: Two-thirds of the 3 percent fee on premiums collected by the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace this year goes to the federal government to support the operations of healthcare.gov, the website where individuals can purchase coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The rest of the fee on premiums for plans sold through the portal supports the state marketplace, which approves the plans and helps consumers enroll. This article incorrectly states what share of the fee goes to the federal government.

The state board in charge of Arkansas' health insurance exchange voted Wednesday to give its director a 5 percent pay raise, taking her salary to $150,000.

The Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace's board also decided to end a contract that had paid a nonprofit group to provide four outreach workers, known as navigators, to help people sign up for insurance.

Instead the assistance will be provided over the phone through a call center operated by the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care.

Currently, operators at the call center answer questions from consumers but don't enroll them in plans.

[DATABASE: Search state government employees’ salaries]

The call center also will refer consumers to insurance agents for one-on-one help, board member Mark Meadors said.

Created by the Legislature in 2013, the marketplace approves the plans sold in the state through healthcare.gov and helps people enroll. More than 53,000 people were enrolled in such plans as of Sept. 1.

Angela Lowther became the marketplace's director just under a year ago after serving as interim director. The previous director, Cheryl Gardner, resigned in February 2017 to become director of the agency in charge of New Mexico's health insurance exchanges.

Announcing the pay raise after a closed session, outgoing Chairman Greg Hatcher said the board agreed that Lowther has "met all expectations and exceeded a bunch of them as well."

"I wish we could do more, but that's what we can do," he said.

Under its current outreach contracts, for coverage taking effect this year, the marketplace expects to pay Enroll the Ridge $337,767 to provide the navigators and the Foundation for Medical Care $150,000 to operate the call center.

The board's vote on Wednesday means the marketplace will eliminate the Enroll the Ridge contract, while increasing the call center contract to $350,000.

The board also voted to spend $383,750 to promote enrollment during the annual sign up period that runs from Nov. 1-Dec. 15, down from the $1.3 million it budgeted for the previous sign-up period.

With one member dissenting, the board also approved a committee's recommendation to keep the fee it charges to insurance companies at the same level in 2020 after it increases next year.

The fee is currently equal to 3 percent of the premiums for non-Medicaid plans a company sells on the exchange.

It will increase next year to 4.25 percent, in part to cover an increase in the fee that the federal government charges to pay expenses associated with healthcare.gov.

The federal government's fee will increase next year from 1.5 percent to 3 percent of exchange plan premiums.

Companies in the 34 states that don't have their own exchanges pay a 3.5 percent fee.

In Arkansas and other states, companies pass the fee along to consumers in the form of higher premiums.

Act 1500 of 2013, which created the marketplace, requires it to recommend the fee for 2020 to the Arkansas Legislative Council by Oct. 1.

Board member Mike Castleberry, who voted against keeping the fee at 4.25 percent, said next year will be a "watershed moment for our organization" because it will be the first time the fee will be higher in Arkansas than in states that don't have their own exchanges.

He noted that marketplaces' reserves are projected to increase from $1.3 million at the end of this year to $2.7 million in 2019 and $3.6 million in 2020.

Other board members said that lowering the fee would put the marketplace at financial risk, but that the fee could be adjusted later if the financial outlook improves.

Referring to the projected reserves, board member John Womack said, "If something changes in Washington and we have a lot less enrollment, it could impact that number pretty drastically."

Metro on 09/13/2018

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