- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (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, was among the guests sitting with first lady Michelle Obama when the president delivered the annual speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.

“Kentucky’s not the most liberal part of the country. That’s not where I got my highest vote totals,” Obama said, drawing light laughter in the House chamber and a grin from Beshear as he began to praise the governor. “But he’s like a man possessed when it comes to covering his commonwealth’s families.

“They are our neighbors and our friends,’” Obama quoted the governor as saying. “‘They are people we shop and go to church with. Farmers out on the tractors. Grocery clerks. They are people who go to work every morning praying they don’t get sick. No one deserves to live that way.’”

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 signing 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.

McConnell, the top-ranking Senate Republican who faces a tough re-election fight back home this year, offered a starkly different view of the health care law.

In a Senate speech Tuesday, he said the law has caused health insurance premiums to rise sharply, restricted access to doctors and hospitals and in some cases limited choices for health coverage to two companies in the individual exchange market. The result is more stress for Kentuckians, McConnell said.

“I assure you, these folks won’t be applauding when the president tries to spin this law as a success,” McConnell said.

The governor said the rate of sign-ups has validated his decision to have a state-operated exchange. Kentuckians cut through the “tremendous amount of misinformation” spread by the law’s critics and decided for themselves, Beshear said.

“Once they found out what the facts were, they liked what they found,” he said before heading to Washington.

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 the president’s invitation came in a phone call from senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Beshear’s wife, Jane, also was invited.

The governor 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.”



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