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8,000 buy health insurance in Washington on deadline day

SEATTLE (AP) — Eight thousand Washington residents bought private health insurance through the state’s health care exchange on Monday, the last day of the open enrollment period.

While the sign-up period under the federal health law has ended, the number of enrollees will continue to rise because people who made an effort to buy insurance but ran into problems will be allowed to keep trying.

A total of 146,000 people have purchased insurance in Washington state through the exchange since it opened on Oct. 1, according to officials at Washington Healthplanfinder. They say half a million people now have coverage in Washington state, putting a dent in the estimated million residents who lacked insurance when the Affordable Care Act took effect.

For continued sign-up help, a call center will remain open and fully staffed, as will the sites Washington residents have gone to for in-person assistance, said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the health exchange.

Marchand said there will be a “slow ramp-down” from the 500 people answering phones at the end of the enrollment period. The call center for Washington’s exchange is located in Spokane Valley.

Exchange officials are encouraging people to keep calling in for help if technical problems prevented them from finishing their applications.

But enrollees should be prepared to spend some time on hold. The wait time has been averaging about an hour and 13 minutes, the exchange said a report released Tuesday.

The state has added more than 400,000 to its Medicaid program since Oct. 1, in addition to the number of people who have bought private insurance. Those who qualified for the state’s insurance program for the poor did not face a Monday deadline. Medicaid signups will continue year-round, via the online exchange.

The federally funded expansion of Medicaid made it available to adults up to 138 percent of poverty level. Since Oct. 1 this brought coverage to 268,367 newly eligible adults statewide. Another 135,485 people, who had been eligible for Medicaid under old rules but had not signed up, have now obtained coverage via the exchange.

These new Medicaid signups include 23,048 adult residents of Spokane County, where the signup rate through March 27 reached 257 percent of the program’s expectations.

During the coming months, state officials will be working to determine how many Washington residents still are uninsured and how many of those who bought insurance through the exchange did not have coverage previously.

Washington has not reached all its goals, but Marchand expressed satisfaction with the work so far.

“We’re feeling pretty good,” he said.

The federal government originally projected Washington would sign up 340,000 people for private insurance by March 31. But state officials set a different projection of 130,000.

The next open enrollment period is Nov. 15, 2014, through Feb. 15, 2015, for coverage that takes effect in 2015.