Our State recently gained national attention for the bipartisan crafting of the Arkansas Private Option. This series of health-care bills will bring health insurance to 250,000 working Arkansans while reforming our current Medicaid system. While this legislative effort was historic, it was not unprecedented.
In 1997, another bipartisan effort created the ARKids First program. At the time, almost a quarter of Arkansas children had no form of insured health care. While in the State Senate, I worked with my fellow legislators and Governor Mike Huckabee to pass ARKids into law. The program was designed for families with household incomes too high to qualify for existing Medicaid programs, but too low to afford private insurance coverage.
Recently, we learned that Arkansas now ranks fourth nationally in providing coverage to children. Today, 94 percent of Arkansas children have health insurance.
Insurance coverage makes a huge difference in the health of a child. When kids get the care they need when they need it, their health is more likely to stabilize and to improve. Children who avoid poor health at a young age stand a better chance of maintaining a lifetime of mental and physical well-being.
ARKids First benefits all Arkansans, even those who aren't parents or children who use it. The program helps slow the growth of health-care costs, costs that all Arkansans pay. When children have no insurance, their parents often cannot afford to take them to the doctor until their health deteriorates. As an illness worsens, care becomes more expensive, and costs spiral higher. Often, those costs are passed along to other Arkansans who do carry insurance when parents are unable to pay for that care out-of-pocket.
These are many of the same arguments we have made in recent months for the Arkansas Private Option, and we hope to see similar improvements in health outcomes for working adults. It will allow individuals to obtain preventive care and early treatment instead of waiting until they are desperately sick and receive expensive emergency-room care that others eventually pay for. And like ARKids First, it will give families the peace of mind that comes from knowing that health care will be affordable when it is needed and that a serious illness won't go untreated or create a family financial crisis.
Nearly 93 percent of children eligible for ARKids are now enrolled, but there are still 46,000 kids in our State who are uninsured. Estimates show that another 10,000 can be newly covered through the private option. We have the chance to continue the amazing progress we have achieved in the past 15 years in caring for our children.
ARKids First is an example of successfully reaching out to those who are uninsured through no fault of their own. Through that program, our State became a leader in expanding coverage to children. We are leading again with the private option. Someday, we hope to look back at the accomplishments of this initiative and see, like we have with the success of ARKids First, that our work has been well worth it.