LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday he has endorsed Arkansas' involvement in a partnership with the federal government to implement a federally mandated health insurance exchange in the state.

LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday he has endorsed Arkansas’ involvement in a partnership with the federal government to implement a federally mandated health insurance exchange in the state.

The announcement was hailed by a coalition that had supported a state-run health care exchange and criticized by the state Republican Party, which said the state should not spend tax dollars on an insurance exchange while the federal health care overhaul is being challenged in court.

In his weekly column and radio address, Beebe said that this week he advised the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that he supports implementing the exchange through a state-federal partnership.

“This partnership will allow us to apply for federal money that will permit us to meet our legal requirements using as little state funding as possible,” Beebe said. “It will also help to ensure that, as more Arkansans sign up for health insurance programs, the premium taxes collected on those policies remain in Arkansas and don’t go to Washington.”

The exchange is mandated under the federal health care overhaul that Congress passed and President Obama signed into law in 2009. Beebe has chosen not to set up a state-run exchange because of opposition from Republican legislators, so the exchange will be run by the federal government.

Because a large number of states have similarly opted not to embrace state-run exchanges, the Obama administration recently announced the creation of a new option in which states can partner with the federal government and retain some decision-making authority.

“Insurance options are best modeled with local needs and perspectives in mind, and this partnership program will give Arkansas a voice in that process, even with the federal government in control of this exchange,” Beebe said.

State Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said the state is seeking a grant expected to be roughly $7.5 million. The money would be used to gather and analyze data, educate the public about how the exchange works and train “navigators” who would help clients navigate the new system and obtain coverage through the exchange, if they choose to do so.

The grant would save about $2.5 million that otherwise would have to come from state coffers, Bradford said. He said that if Arkansas is approved for the grant and for the partnership, it will “be able to tailor these coverages to Arkansas needs, which is a lot better than losing all of this to the federal government.”

A coalition of Arkansas organizations that had supported a state-run health care exchange issued a statement Thursday praising the governor’s action.

“Going forward, the federal partnership model is the best way to maintain some state regulatory oversight, protect consumers and save the state money,” said Lynn Zeno, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Arkansas.

The insurance agents’ group is part of a coalition that also includes the Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, among others.

Katherine Vasilos, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said in a statement Thursday, “Until the Supreme Court rules this summer on the constitutionality of the law, we should not spend tax dollars to fund planning for an Obamacare exchange in Arkansas.”

Vasilos accused Beebe of giving himself “political cover” when he cited Republican opposition as the reason for not pursuing a state-run exchange, even though legislative approval was not required.

State Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin responded, “Republicans in Arkansas are still advocating for the federal government to implement the health care exchange in our state, and that’s just wrong. This solution will at least allow for some state oversight.”

State Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, the House majority leader, said in an interview he believes the Beebe administration has not kept legislators adequately informed about its actions.

“I haven’t had any information on the partnership exchange,” Burris said. “I think the real problem is a lack of leadership from the administration in communicating what they want with the Arkansas Legislature. I’d rather see them communicating with Arkansas legislators than (Health and Human Services Secretary) Kathleen Sebelius.”

Bradford said that if the state receives the grant, legislators will have the final say because it will be up to them to appropriate the money.

As for the decision to pursue the grant and the partnership, Bradford said the governor “thought it was in the best interests of the citizens, and I certainly agree with that decision.”