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HealthCare Checkup

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

February 5, 2015 at 6:29 PM

State lagging on Obamacare goal, surpassing Medicaid targets

By the end of January, the state was less than two-thirds of the way to its goal of enrolling 213,000 in the Washington Healthplanfinder insurance exchange. By the month’s end, more than 132,000 people had bought insurance through the site, officials said Thursday.

But the numbers keep rising for Medicaid participants. Nearly 500,000 people have joined who were newly eligible for the program thanks to an expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

The window for buying a health-insurance plans closes on Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. Residents can enroll in Medicaid, locally called Apple Health, at any time.

“With the Feb. 15 deadline less than two weeks away, we’re taking this opportunity to remind residents they need to take immediate action to get enrolled,” said Richard Onizuka, CEO for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which runs the state’s insurance marketplace.

“Free in-person help is also available for those who need it, either through scheduled appointments with navigators and insurance brokers, or through local enrollment events,” Onizuka said in an email.

State officials and others in health care cite numerous reasons for the lower-than-hoped-for turnout.

One explanation is that more people than expected were eligible for Medicaid, diverting exchange customers to the free health-care program.

News of ongoing technical issues with the online exchange might have driven some potential customers away. The problems include confusion around the renewal process, which has sent some former customers to non-exchange alternatives. People can opt to buy insurance outside of the exchange, either from brokers or from insurance companies, but those plans are not eligible for federal tax breaks, which lower premium costs.

And some people are finding that health insurance plans – even with tax benefits – are still beyond their budget. The penalty for being uninsured increases for 2015 to whichever is higher between $325 per adult or 2 percent of adjusted household income. But for some people, the penalty is still the more affordable, palatable option.

The exchange needs to reach its enrollment targets in order to bring in enough money to pay for its operational costs.

“I’m not exactly encouraged with the enrollment numbers we’re seeing right now,” said state insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler. “There might be a mad rush at the end.”

In addition to brokers and navigators who are specially trained to use the exchange website, Washington residents can contact the customer support center Monday to Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Additional hours are scheduled for Feb. 7 and Feb. 8 from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Feb. 14 from 7:30 a.m. to 4 pm; and Feb. 15 from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. That number is 1-855-923-4633.

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