Twenty years ago today, on March 10, 1997, then-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee signed ARKids First into law. ARKids was Arkansas’s state-funded health insurance program, and bringing it to life was a monumental moment for kids and families in our state. ARKids filled in the gap for children whose families made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private health insurance.
At the time ARKids was signed, almost a quarter of Arkansas children were uninsured (one in four). These children could not get the preventive care or medical attention they needed or deserved to live healthy, successful lives and to thrive in school, at home, and later in life.
Many working families were going to great lengths to make sure their kids got the medications they needed. Governor Mike Huckabee recalls a father near Mena who couldn’t afford antibiotics for his kids. He was going to the farm supply store, buying antibiotics meant for puppies, and making it work. Gov. Huckabee and then-AACF Executive Director Amy Rossi agreed that Arkansas families should not have to make those tough decisions. They took action months ahead of a federal law that created the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provided federal matching funds to states to cover these children.
AACF played a pivotal role in the outreach effort to get kids enrolled in the program. In partnership with the Department of Human Services, we led an eight-year outreach campaign that included the creation and distribution of brochures, TV and radio ads, and employed creative marketing strategies like working with local restaurants to distribute information to families. There was also a hotline applicants could call for help. More details about the successful history of ARKids First can be found in this 2006 report.
AACF has also worked hard over the years to make it easier for families to enroll their kids in ARKids and keep them covered. The policy changes we successfully helped implement include removing the face-to-face interview and the asset test, reducing the waiting period to enroll in coverage (after becoming uninsured), and a number of others that have helped simplify the application process.
Thanks in large part to ARKids, Arkansas became a national leader in reducing the number of uninsured children in the state. In fact, over 30,000 children signed up for the program in the first year. Today, the ARKids First program is comprised of Medicaid and CHIP coverage for kids in Arkansas, because the state decided to bring both types of coverage under one umbrella.
Today, less than 5% of our kids remain uninsured – and that is something to celebrate! In honor of this landmark legislation and all the progress we’ve made, yesterday we partnered with the Clinton School of Public Service to host a panel discussion with child health experts. Panelists included Elisabeth Wright Burak, Georgetown University Center for Children and Families and Creshelle Nash, MD, MPH, Medical Director at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield. Our own Health Policy Director Marquita Little moderated.
We also debuted a video we created to commemorate the anniversary and recognize the key leaders who helped get ARKids First legislation passed. Included in the video are former Governor Mike Huckabee; former AACF Executive Director Amy Rossi; former Arkansas Medicaid Director Ray Hanley; AACF Executive Director Rich Huddleston; AACF Health Policy Director Marquita Little; and Dr. Eddie Ochoa, a pediatrician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. See the full video below.
Special thanks to our 40th-anniversary sponsor, Arkansas Children’s Hospital.