When the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace opened last week, local offices of the Arkansas Department of Health got "tons of phone calls about it," according to Paula Beatty, director of the offices in Booneville and Paris.

"We had a lot of interest and we’re really excited about it," Beatty said last week.

The marketplace opened on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

Officials said the public response to the opening of insurance marketplaces, also known as insurance exchanges, under the federal Affordable Care Act has been overwhelming. That’s literally true in the case of the federal marketplace website, which Arkansans must visit if they want to enroll online because Arkansas chose not to establish a state-based exchange. The site has been down much of the time because of system overload.

According to the state Insurance Department, 36,383 people visited the Arkansas Health Connector website in the first 48 hours after the marketplace launched, 16,500 of whom clicked on an "Enroll now" button and were directed to the federal marketplace site.

The state Department of Human Services said last week that 55,400 clients of DHS programs expressed interest in signing up for the private option, Arkansas’ plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to buy insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

About 500,000 people are expected to enroll in the exchange, about half of them under the private option. The Affordable Care Act requires nearly all Americans to have health insurance starting in January or face financial penalties.

While there was a lot of interest locally, signing up for the exchange will have to wait a little bit, Beatty said.

"Right now, we’re taking names and numbers because our In Person Assistant hasn’t completed the training and it should be complete in a week to a week and a half," Beatty said.

Proponents of the law known as Obamacare say the strong public response shows that, despite continuing political clashes over the law, people are eager to learn what it has to offer them.

"I think the fact that you have had millions of (website) hits at the federal level, and you had lots of hits in Arkansas as well, I think is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of interest," said Rich Huddleston, executive director of the nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

"That interest is only going to build over time once those systems are up, and I think it does vindicate supporters of Affordable Care Act," he said.

Huddleston said the response shows how great the need has been for affordable insurance.

"For most folks it is an economic issue. They don’t have affordable health care coverage," he said.

Beatty said In Person Assistants will be on hand when the ADH holds mass flu vaccination clinics in Paris and Booneville later this month. The clinic in Paris will be held on Oct. 24 from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the First National Bank Community Center. The Booneville clinic will take place Oct. 25 from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church.

"They can enroll at the clinics or get more information and we’re going to do a presentation about the exchange at noon each day," Beatty said.

Beatty added that she can arrange presentations from groups. If a group is interested, they should call Beatty at 963-6126. A group presentation is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the New Blaine Volunteer Fire Department.

Of course, not everyone is excited about the marketplace opening.

State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, said last Friday, "I think you have a certain segment that, yeah, they are looking for health insurance options, and with the government subsidy, they’re going to look at it."

But King said poll after poll has shown that most people do not want the law.

"Obamacare is hugely unpopular in Arkansas, and a majority of Americans want to see it repealed," he said.

The insurance marketplaces opened on the same day that a government shutdown took effect because Congress was unable to reach a budget agreement by the end of the federal fiscal year. Republicans, who control the House but not the Senate, have demanded that Obamacare be defunded or delayed as a condition of a budget agreement.

Huddleston said the timing of the GOP lawmakers’ stand against the law is no coincidence.

"People who oppose the law know that once you get millions of people nationwide, or in Arkansas’ case hundreds of thousands of people who currently don’t have coverage, once they start to get coverage … it’s going to be very difficult for opponents six months from now, nine months from now, to make an effort to undermine the Affordable Care Act," he said.

"I think this whole battle in D.C. is reflective of the fact that they know that and so they’re making one last-ditch effort," Huddleston said.

Dec. 15 is the deadline to apply through the marketplace for coverage that will become effective Jan. 1.

(The Arkansas News Bureau contributed information used in this report.)