FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Three weeks into the federal health care overhaul, more than 26,000 Kentuckians have signed up for medical coverage, the vast majority of whom will become Medicaid recipients.
Gov. Steve Beshear released updated enrollment numbers Thursday, showing that 21,342 people have been enrolled in the state's Medicaid program and another 4,832 in private insurance plans through the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange. Coverage won't begin until Jan. 1.
Beshear said Kentucky hasn't had the technical glitches that have hampered the federal health benefit exchange, which has been unable to accommodate large numbers of users. Frozen screens and delays are the norm on the website that's supposed to allow people to easily shop for insurance policies.
"We've had sort of a perfect rollout in Kentucky," Beshear told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We hit the ground running. We wanted to make sure that when this kicked off, it was going to work, and that our people would have every opportunity to sign up."
More than 300,000 people have visited the exchange website. Of that number, nearly 268,000 have conducted pre-screenings to determine eligibility for Medicaid or for government subsidies to buy private insurance. In addition, 51,482 people have begun filling out applications.
President Barack Obama was so impressed with Kentucky's smooth rollout of his health care reforms that he called Beshear on Tuesday to thank him.
Hodgenville resident Dorothy Bender said Thursday she was pleasantly surprised by the ease of her signup. Bender, whose son faces surgery for a collapsed lung, was among a crowd at the Family Health Center in western Louisville on Thursday where she found she qualified for Medicaid. The 42-year-old had lost her job at an Amazon warehouse in Shepherdsville in June.
Melissa Noyes, a spokeswoman at the Family Health Center, said the response from the public has been overwhelming since the exchange went up on Oct. 1.
"Our outreach enrollment workers are booked every day with individuals, helping them one on one, and we have just a stack of sheets of follow up for folks who we are going to call up and get in here just as soon as we can," Noyes said.
Tea party activist David Adams, one of the state's most ardent critics of the Affordable Care Act, called the number of signees "unimpressive," considering Beshear estimates the number of uninsured in the state at 640,000.
"They talk about the fact that they're giving away free health care, and, three weeks later, they can't give it away," Adams said. "They're either the worst salesmen in the world or they have a problem with their product. I believe they're good salesmen. I think it's the product."
Larry Levitt, senior vice president for the Kaiser Family Foundation, said he expected a surge of interest after the exchanges went into operation, followed by a lull before enrollment picks back up beginning in mid-November.
"Kentucky stands out as an example of an exchange that's working," Levitt said. "The online experience seems to be have been smooth for people, and the enrollment has ramped up faster than most other states."
Beshear, who pledged in first gubernatorial campaign to press for medical care for the state's working poor, saw the Affordable Care Act as a means to accomplish his goal. He rushed to ensure that Kentucky was among the first states to create a health benefit exchange, and he also moved quickly to order an expansion of the state's Medicaid program, which is expected to provide coverage to some 300,000 additional Kentuckians.
The federal government will pick up the entire cost of the expansion for the first three years, and 90 percent over the longer haul.
Beshear got behind the Affordable Care Act despite relentless criticism from Kentucky's two Republican U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, who have repeatedly called for the law's repeal. Beshear said he believes expanding medical coverage can only benefit a state that ranks among the worst in nearly every measure of unhealthiness.
"My message to Kentuckians has been pretty simple,"" Beshear told The Associated Press. "I said: 'look, you don't have to like the president. You don't have to like me. But this is not about the president. It's not about me. It's about you. It's about your family. It's about your children."
Beshear created the exchange by executive order last year, and Kentucky received more than $250 million from the federal government to set it up.
Premiums range from less than $50 a month for a healthy single person to more than $700 a month for a family for four.
Beshear has said four out of five Kentuckians will be eligible based on income cutoffs for federal subsidies, which range from less than $100 to more than $500 a month to help pay premiums.