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HealthCare Checkup

The Seattle Times health-care team tracks the local impact of the Affordable Care Act.

March 24, 2014 at 9:01 PM

Uninsured Americans not rushing to buy health coverage

Data through March 23. Source: Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Data through March 23. Source: Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

As the enrollment deadline draws near, more than 125,000 people have purchased health insurance through Washington’s insurance exchange. But there hasn’t been the surge of new signups that supporters were hoping for, and a national poll casts some doubt that a major rush is still to come.

Only 40 percent of uninsured Americans surveyed in a new poll were aware of the March 31 deadline for purchasing individual insurance this year.

When reminded of the date and requirement that they get insurance or pay a penalty, half said they are not planning to get coverage, according to a survey being released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Four-in-10 uninsured Americans said they did plan to get insurance.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced an easy process for people to apply for extensions to the deadline if they were trying to buy insurance through federally-managed exchanges. Washington residents can also request extensions, but they have to meet more stringent requirements.

Washington’s insurance exchange, called Healthplanfinder, is nationally recognized as one of the more successful marketplaces. But a week before enrollment is set to close for the year, the exchange still had not met its January sales goal of 130,000 people.

In previous surveys, many people have cited cost as a key reason for not purchasing insurance. But four-in-10 uninsured U.S. residents surveyed by Kaiser were unaware that they might be eligible for tax benefits that reduce the price of insurance plans.

The poll was taken March 11 to 17 and respondents were contacted by cell or land-line phones. More than 1,500 people were surveyed, but only 150 of those were uninsured. The survey also found that more people don’t like the Affordable Care Act than do, but they would rather have Congress work to improve the law than repeal it.

Sarah Freeman, a broker at Seattle’s Mutual Benefits, says her company is in fact seeing a rush of people eager to get insurance in the last weeks.

“The slackers are going to do it now,” Freeman said.

People have a mixed reaction to enrollment, she said. Some are upset that the plans are expensive, even with tax benefits, and consider paying the penalty as opposed to the insurance premiums. Others are excited to learn they can get free visits with chiropractors or for acupuncture.

“Overall people have been really happy coming in because they have heard these horrors about how the website is working, but we’re really fast at getting people through,” Freeman said. “People thought it would be such a painful process, but now it’s working a bit better.”

Those struggling with the website can expect to wait roughly an hour on hold to get help from the state’s toll-free phone call center, according to exchange officials.

People can buy insurance themselves through the exchange website, or outside of the exchange through a broker or directly from an insurance company. Brokers are free and can help people shopping inside or outside of the exchange. Additionally, so-called “navigators” who often work with medical and community groups are also free and trained to assist people using the exchange.

Most people are using the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange to enroll in Medicaid, as opposed to purchasing a health insurance plan. Data are from March 23 for insurance and March 20 for Medicaid. Source: Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Most people are using the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange to enroll in Medicaid, as opposed to purchasing a health insurance plan. Data are from March 23 for insurance and March 20 for Medicaid. Source: Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Not everyone is seeing an uptick in interest.

“I don’t see a big bump,” said Mark Hermiller, a broker with Renton’s Humble & Davenport Insurance Brokers. Some clients think the Affordable Care Act “is going to fall apart and Obama will go away and the mandate will go away,” he said.

Healthplanfinder is also the place for enrolling in Medicaid, and the state has blown through  its targets for this program. More than 250,000 people who are newly eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of the program are now signed up, according to data from March 20. An additional 130,000 people who were previously eligible for Medicaid have enrolled and close to 400,000 people have renewed their Medicaid accounts.

There is no end date for people signing up for Medicaid, a free health-care program that locally goes by the name Apple Health. People who qualify can enroll throughout the year.

To qualify as having enrolled in an insurance plan, Washington residents must finalize their application and make their first premium payment before midnight on March 31.

People who try to purchase insurance through the state’s exchange but are derailed due to a problem with the website can apply for an extension in order to complete their enrollment, said exchange spokeswoman Bethany Frey. The extensions will be granted on a case-by-case basis and state officials will verify that the person started the process in time but ran into technical problems.

“If somebody currently knows that their application is stuck and we’re aware of it, we’re asking those people not to contact our customer support center,” Frey said, due to the heavy traffic to the center. If someone has stalled in their efforts to get insurance through the exchange but not reported it, they are asked to inform the state as soon as possible.

People shopping for insurance in one of the 36 states using the federally-managed exchange will have an easier time getting an extension. The Washington Post and Associated Press reported on Tuesday that people can request more time to complete their application due to technical problems, but the government will not actually check to make sure they were delayed due to glitches with the website.

Comments | Topics: Affordable Care Act, Apple Health, health insurance


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