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Health insurance applications surge at deadline in Washington

OLYMPIA - Washington’s state health insurance exchange reported a spike in sign-ups ahead of next Monday’s deadline, swelling enrollments for all plans to just over 213,000.

That represents more than a fifth of the state’s 1 million uninsured who can expect to become covered Jan. 1. Officials say they expect more to sign up before March 31, which is the next major deadline and one that triggers potential tax penalties for those who don’t have coverage.

“From our view, if you get a fifth of the uninsured covered, it’s a good start,” said Steve Valandra, spokesman for the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, which compiles statistics on the Evergreen State’s uninsured. “It’s still a long way to go but it’s a good start.”

The newly enrolled include 65,472 people who purchased private health plans through the Washington Health Benefit Exchange - a figure that nearly doubled since Dec. 12. But it still lags behind a goal of 130,000 that had been set for 2013.

Another 100,795 people will become eligible for Medicaid on Jan. 1; 47,492 more were deemed immediately eligible for Medicaid under rules that predated the Affordable Care Act.

Those enrollment numbers are expected to go up, according to Bethany Frey, spokeswoman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange. Frey said the exchange saw tremendous surges of interest over the weekend, peaking on Monday when the deadline fell for starting an application for private insurance.

Frey said 50,000 consumers visited the Healthplanfinder website on that one day and more than 10,000 signed up and paid to start private insurance coverage.

In fact, as the deadline drew near, interest grew at the exchange website over a period of several days. More than 20,000 people signed up for private insurance plans in the four days leading up to the deadline, and others for Medicaid, according to Frey.

As 2014 approaches, the enrollment figures might still rise. That is because the exchange is giving people who at least started an application for a private plan by 11:59 p.m. Monday until Jan. 15 to complete their applications and pay the first month’s premium. As of Tuesday, 69,606 people had filled out applications for private plans but hadn’t paid a monthly premium. Another 179,205 had started applications but not completed them - either for private plans or Medicaid. Frey said it is hard to predict how many might follow through.

For those with incomes low enough to qualify for Medicaid, Dec. 31 is the deadline to apply for Jan. 1 coverage. The state Health Care Authority oversees the Medicaid program and has sharply reduced its application time to as little as 45 minutes, according to spokesman Jim Stevenson.

The federally run health exchanges have had huge problems in many states. Washington is among the minority of states that chose to operate their own exchanges, and despite problems, it has functioned better than many.

Washington’s call center in Spokane has been plagued by higher call volumes than expected when the Health Benefit Exchange gave the center contract to Virginia-based Faneuil Inc. That led to waiting times in excess of 20 minutes and, in response, the call center staffing has more than doubled to 286 people, Frey said.

Nancy Chambret of Tacoma said she was appalled to learn her adult daughter could not get help from the center after her online application kept getting an error message.

“My aggravation is the fact that whenever you call, they hang up on you. They don’t put you on hold. They don’t tell you to leave a message. They say the lines are busy and to call another time,” said Chambret, a former state government employee who used to do call center work for an agency in Oregon. “Something is not right there.”

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