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Outside view: Psst! The ACA lives, here in Washington state

The following editorial appeared in Yakima Herald-Republic:

Amid all the talk about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, the ACA is still around – for now – and available for those who seek health insurance. But not everything is the same; those seeking to get health care or change their current insurance coverage through the ACA need to move a lot quicker than in the past after the federal government narrowed the window for open enrollment. The state has taken it on itself to widen the window somewhat, but there remains less time for people to make key personal medical decisions.

Meanwhile, congressional efforts led by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee continue as conscientious lawmakers seek bipartisan ways to fix the system. That effort isn’t helped any by a recent proposal in the Senate tax measure to remove the individual mandate.

Federal government actions reflect the disdain by many Trump administration officials of what they pejoratively call Obamacare; they have cut the open enrollment period to Nov. 1-Dec. 15 for Healthcare.gov, which is for 39 states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges. That is about half the time available last year, and the promotional budget also has been cut.

Washington is one state in which officials consistently have embarked on making the ACA work since its implementation in 2014, and that remains the case. The state has pushed the deadline to Jan. 15 for open enrollment, which is the annual period in which people can enroll, switch plans or get subsidies on health plans. The Washington Health Benefit Exchange also will have more people on phone lines to help callers, and the state has made changes to the online process.

The word appears to have gotten out about the change in approach. The federal government reported Wednesday that almost 1.5 million people signed up from Nov. 1 through Nov. 11, a notable jump from the 1 million who had signed up in a similar period last year. That total included data from the 39 states served by HealthCare.gov, not states like Washington that set up their exchanges. In this state, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange reported more than 320,000 visitors have reviewed their coverage options at Washington Healthplanfinder since Nov. 1, a 24 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

The ACA has attracted its share of justified criticism, and there is much to be improved. But a program that has brought health insurance to an estimated 30,000 adults in Yakima County alone, since 2014, has proven essential in a Valley that lags in just about every health metric, statewide and nationwide.

The rush in enrollments reflects the demand for accessible and affordable health care – and for the need to let people know what they can get and at what cost. It also highlights the need for Congress to take a considered look at reform and avoid piecemeal tactics such as the elimination of the individual mandate in a tax bill. Those who rely on the ACA need to know what is different now, and Sens. Murray and Alexander must be allowed to succeed in their efforts to fix the program.


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