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Window to exchange COBRA coverage closes July 1

Washington residents who lost their job and stayed on their former employer’s health insurance plan through COBRA have a new and possibly lower-cost way to get health insurance.

But there’s a catch: the window closes July 1 and even the state admits the application process is confusing.

The traditional path to coverage after a job loss has involved COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This 1986 federal law allows people who’ve lost their job to stay, temporarily, on their former employer’s health plan.

The new opportunity is to switch from COBRA coverage to a health policy purchased from the state’s insurance exchange website at www.wahealthplanfinder.org.

This week, the state announced a limited enrollment period, between now and July 1, during which people who rely on COBRA coverage can buy a policy of their own from the state insurance exchange.

A policy from the exchange could cost considerably less than a COBRA plan, state officials said. That’s because a COBRA premium usually saddles the former employee with the policy’s full cost, including the portion the former employer used to pay.

On the state insurance exchange, federal subsidies reduce the cost of a policy; the lower a household’s income, the larger the subsidy.

But people who’d like to take advantage of this temporary new enrollment window will face an awkward, two-step enrollment procedure.

Here’s the background: For most people who wanted to buy 2014 health coverage, the enrollment window closed on March 31. After that date, the only way to buy a subsidized 2014 policy on the exchange has been to experience one of the “life events” defined in federal law, such as having a baby, getting married or losing a job.

But that list of life events excludes those who already had have lost a job and already have secured coverage via COBRA.

On May 2, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called for the temporary enrollment opportunity, ending July 1, for those who already are on a COBRA plan.

This temporary enrollment window came as a surprise. As a result, the state website’s developers did not have time to smoothly incorporate COBRA-related questions in the website’s online application process. Instead, developers had to cobble together a two-part workaround. Here are the state’s instructions for using it:

• At www.wahealthplanfinder.org, create an account and complete an application for a policy. Toward the end of the process, the website will give current COBRA users a misleading message that they do not qualify for a policy.

• Next, applicants must go to a separate, special enrollment application located at https:// seprequest.wahealthplanfinder. org. This form must be completed by July 1. After this form is completed, officials said, the state manually will connect the first application to the second application, and qualifying applicants will get their new coverage.

Bethany Frey, communications specialist for the website, acknowledged the process is “confusing.” Applicants with questions, she said, can call the website’s support line at 1-855-WAFINDER, or a licensed insurance broker.



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