FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Gov. Steve Beshear predicted Wednesday that Kentucky's new health benefit exchange will provide an overdue dose of preventive care to ease the state's chronic health problems, as he announced plans to publicize efforts to steer more than 600,000 uninsured people toward health coverage.
The exchange, an outgrowth of the federal Affordable Care Act, will curtail a common practice among many Kentuckians to skip check-ups, go without needed medication or rely on emergency rooms to treat ailments, Beshear said.
Lack of early care is one reason Kentucky's "health picture is so horrendous," with its dismal national rankings in preventable hospitalizations, cancer and heart disease rates and premature deaths, he said.
Kentucky's health woes hurt productivity, student performance and even the state's image, the governor said.
By extending coverage, one expected outcome is that more people will undergo routine exams that detect early symptoms of serious health problems, Beshear said. The result will be a healthier population and less costly health care system.
"When this all comes together over this next generation of Kentuckians, you're going to see a sea change in terms of quality of life here in this state," Beshear told reporters at the Capitol.
Beshear created the state exchange by executive order last summer to help uninsured Kentuckians get coverage. Many of those will also get help paying their premiums through the exchange.
Now one of the tasks is to make sure the targeted population knows about the exchange leading up to the enrollment period.
The exchange is run by the Office of the Kentucky Health Benefits Exchange. In coming months, exchange staff will attend community events, start a toll-free hotline and add information to the exchange website, Beshear said.
The efforts will be backed by an advertising campaign.
"We want everybody to know a healthier future for Kentucky is on the way, and where to go to apply when open enrollment arrives," he said.
The exchange is expected to help about 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians get coverage through private insurance plans or Medicaid and the Kentucky Children's Health Insurance Program.
The website is supposed to make picking health insurance similar to buying an airline ticket from an online travel site.
The enrollment period for individuals and small businesses seeking coverage through the exchange begins this Oct. 1. Coverage will begin as soon as Jan. 1, 2014.
Kentuckians will be able to compare and select health insurance plans and find out if they qualify for Medicaid and KCHIP. People can use the website, a toll-free contact center, a mail-in application or in person.
The exchange's website is www.kynect.ky.gov .
Kentuckians receiving coverage through the exchange can keep their children on their health plans until age 26, no one can be denied coverage due to a prior health condition or lose coverage because a family member gets sick. Those are key elements in the federal health-care overhaul.
Carrie Banahan, executive director of the health benefit exchange office, said five insurers have filed notices of intent to offer plans through the exchange. Those insurers haven't yet filed intended rates, she said.
Startup costs for the Kentucky exchange are being covered by federal grants. Kentucky has already received about $253 million from the federal government to set up the exchange, Beshear said.
Eventually, the exchange will be self-sufficient through assessments on insurance companies to cover operational costs, he said.
Tea party activists in Kentucky have been sharply critical of Beshear's decision to operate a state health insurance exchange, saying taxpayers are having to pick up the bill for an unnecessary government entity.
The exchange is the target of a legal challenge. Tea party activist David Adams claims in the lawsuit that Beshear created the exchange without necessary legislative approval. Adams is asking a judge to order work on the exchange to cease.
"There's nothing in the (state) Constitution that allows a governor to set up a new bureaucracy, to spend money or to raise taxes without legislative approval," Adams told reporters after Beshear's press conference Wednesday.
Beshear said he acted within the scope of his authority when he created the exchange.
"What I find ironic about the legal challenge is that it's being brought by individuals who seem to hate the federal government, and they don't want the federal government in our lives and they would rather have things done locally," the governor said. "That's exactly what we're doing here."
Beshear was among a group of governors who chose to have their states set up and run their own health insurance markets. A number of states turned down the offer to run the markets, putting the task on the federal government.