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Health care markets to open amid federal uncertainty

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 21, 2017, 10:35 p.m.

The Healthcare.gov website is seen on a computer screen this week in Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP)
The Healthcare.gov website is seen on a computer screen this week in Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Despite months of turmoil over the nation’s health care policy, you’ll still be able to buy an insurance plan starting Nov. 1.

The bad news? No one’s sure how much it’s going to cost.

Washington HealthPlanFinder, the state’s health insurance exchange, is gearing up for open enrollment, the period of the year where anyone can sign up for insurance for themselves and their families.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has slashed the advertising budget for open enrollment by 90 percent, down to $10 million; cut funding for navigators who help customers evaluate plans; and shortened the open enrollment period by a month.

But Washington has moved in the opposite direction, hiring more navigators and brokers.

The state will have 13 sites for in-person help to sign up or renew insurance. In Spokane, navigators will be available at Better Health Together at 1206 N. Lincoln Ave., Suite 105.

“We have more this year than ever before to help people out,” said Michael Marchand, the exchange’s chief marketing officer.

The exchanges sell plans from private insurance companies that offer a basic set of benefits, including coverage for hospitalization, prescription drugs and mental health care.

The prices of those plans climbed on average 24 percent this year, though 60 percent of Washingtonians who use the exchange get a subsidy to help them offset the cost of coverage.

Those subsidies are tied to the cost of the second cheapest “silver” level health plan and will rise as rates rise, so consumers may not see much of a difference in what they’re paying.

But more rate increases may be in the works. President Donald Trump announced last week that he would end “cost-sharing reduction” payments that reimburse insurance companies for the cost of offering cheaper health insurance plans to lower-income customers.

Without those payments, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said Wednesday he would authorize insurers to further increase rates to offset the lost revenue. Those increases could be an additional 9 to 27 percent, he said.

Kreidler placed the blame on Trump, calling the increase a “Trump tax.”

A bipartisan outline for a health reform bill announced this week by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, would re-up those payments. If such a plan becomes law before Nov. 1, insurers would be able to charge lower rates, said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the insurance commissioner’s office.

A court order could also require the Trump administration to continue paying the subsidies, Valandra said.

“It’s still sort of up in the air,” he said.

Marchand said he’s hoping the turmoil doesn’t impact signups. Less advertising could mean fewer people know signups are happening, he said. But heading into the fifth year of signups, most customers are renewing existing plans, not getting coverage for the first time.

The exchange has added a new feature called SmartPlan Finder, where people can enter their existing health care providers and prescription medications, then compare whether a variety of exchange plans will cover them.

Customers can access the tool by going to the shopping section on WAHealthPlanFinder.org, entering some basic information and then clicking “SmartPlan Finder” on the left-hand menu.

“This is an important decision for so many Washingtonians and we want to make sure that they feel comfortable,” Marchand said.

People can enroll in Washington’s Medicaid plans, often called Apple Health, year-round, including during the open enrollment period. Customers with an existing plan don’t need to worry about renewing it now and can wait until their plan year is over, said Amy Blondin, communications manager for Washington State Health Care Authority.

Washington contracts with five private insurance companies to manage Medicaid plans, and each has a slightly different network of providers, though benefits are similar. Navigators can help customers understand the differences between those plans, Blondin said.