The Spokesman-Review

Opinion

Editorial: Sign up now for health care to avoid March 31 deadline crunch

You can do your uninsured friends and neighbors a favor by reminding them that March 31 is the deadline to sign up for health care coverage before risking a federal tax penalty.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted last month, only 24 percent of uninsured people were aware of the deadline. Some thought it had passed. Some thought they could sign up later, or anytime. The confusion is understandable because other deadlines, such as the one for employer-provided coverage, have been extended.

But on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told the House Ways and Means Committee there would be no extension for those in the individual market.

The six-month enrollment period has been dogged by technological nightmares at Healthcare.gov, the federal website, which initially made it difficult for people to research plans, discover subsidy amounts and make a purchase. As a result, the Obama administration has backed off its early estimate of 7 million people signing up through the exchanges. An analysis released this week by Avalere Health estimates that 5.4 million people will enroll by March 31.

But the news in Washington and Idaho is better than in many other states.

Washington has been a leader in establishing a workable website and offering other assistance. As of Wednesday, 191,000 people had enrolled in a private plan, with 109,000 paid, according to Michael Marchand, spokesman for Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Idaho dragged its feet on establishing an exchange, but still ranks second in per-capita purchases. Though smaller in population, Idaho has signed up 5,000 more people than Oregon, which has perhaps the worst website in the country.

Oregon and a few other states that haven’t managed the health insurance launch well may ask for an extension of the March 31 deadline. Washington officials are not planning on it, so uninsured people need to hurry before being hit with potential penalties. Individuals face a $95 tax penalty. It can go as high as $285 per family, or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is higher. The penalties grow in succeeding years.

After March 31, the next chance to enroll is in November. Sign-up for Apple Health (Medicaid) is year-round.

The exchange has ramped up its public service ads in recent weeks, which has driven more traffic to the exchange. This has been particularly effective with young adults – a demographic that’s crucial to keeping overall premium costs down.

Along with the website – www.wahealthplanfinder.org, there’s a free call center: 1 (855) WAFINDER. In addition, local brokers and others offer free in-person assistance. The website can point you toward that assistance.

Note that for a plan to become activated on April 1, payment must be made by March 23, just 10 days from now. The sooner you sign up, the more likely you are to avoid the deadline crunch.

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Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:



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