FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky’s high performance for health care sign-ups through its state-run website has earned Gov. Steve Beshear a White House invitation to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Beshear, a strong supporter of Obama’s health-care law, will be among the guests sitting with first lady Michelle Obama when the president delivers the annual speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. Beshear said the president’s invitation came in a phone call from senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“It will put Kentucky in the national spotlight for being the model in the nation for successfully implementing the Affordable Care Act,” the Democratic governor said before leaving for Washington, D.C.
Beshear’s wife, Jane, also was invited and will be seated in the gallery.
Many states refused to set up their own online insurance marketplaces, a centerpiece of the health care law. Those states shifted the task to the federal website, which hit a series of embarrassing early snags in its efforts to sign up people for health coverage.
Beshear, however, embraced the opportunity for a Bluegrass state site, even as the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, pressed for the health-care law’s repeal.
The governor said the rate of sign-ups has validated his decision.
Enrollment began Oct. 1, and as of Monday more than 182,000 Kentuckians had enrolled through the state’s Health Benefit Exchange, Beshear said.
The bulk of enrollments have been for coverage through Medicaid, but about one in four Kentuckians have signed up for private insurance coverage, and about a third of all enrollees are under age 35, he said.
“We proved that it could work here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “It just demonstrates the enormous pent-up demand here … for affordable health care coverage.”
Beshear predicted the extension of health coverage will improve the prospects of a state that has broad pockets of poverty and consistently ranks at or near the top nationally for many health problems. About 640,000 Kentuckians lacked health insurance when the online sign-ups began. One of the spin-off effects of the increased coverage will be a more productive workforce, he said.
The governor also decided last year to expand Kentucky’s Medicaid program to cover an additional 300,000 people, most of them the working poor who lacked insurance coverage.
The invitation to attend the State of the Union address comes from a president who is unpopular in Kentucky. Obama was trounced both times in Kentucky even as he won nationally, and the state’s Republicans routinely try to link their Democratic opponents to the president.
Beshear said he would have accepted the invitation, no matter the president’s political affiliation.
“This is the president of the United States, and he has decided to honor our state for a tremendous success in delivering health care to our people,” he said. “To me, this is not a political visit at all.”