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Washington state health exchange website shut down

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – Washington’s health care exchange shut down after the first few hours of open enrollment Saturday as state officials and software engineers tried to resolve a problem with tax credit calculations.

Officials at the exchange said Washington Healthplanfinder, which opened at 8 a.m., appeared to be working fine at first. When the exchange’s quality control system reported the problem, they decided to shut down the whole system at about 10:30 a.m. to fix it.

The tax credits were off by just a few dollars in some cases, exchange CEO Richard Onizuka said. He said the system would remain down until it can give consumers who want to buy health insurance accurate information.

Saturday afternoon, officials estimated the site wouldn’t reopen until this morning, but the actual timing will depend on how soon a software fix can be tested for potential side effects.

Exchange officials in Washington could not say how many people had signed up for insurance before the problem was discovered, but spokesman Michael Marchand said about 2,000 people were using the exchange each hour during the two hours it was open Saturday morning.

Officials decided to shut down the exchange – which was working well otherwise – instead of fixing the problem later because they learned after the previous open enrollment period that even small issues are difficult to fix after registrations are complete, Marchand said.

“It’s really bittersweet,” Marchand said. “The site worked so much better than last year.”

It also was disappointing because the quality control group did such a good job catching the problem just by looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, he added.

“It’s a feat that would make auditors jealous,” Marchand said.

Marti Stangle, of Spokane, tried to use the Healthplanfinder website Saturday.

“It let me get on, but then it told me it was out of order,” Stangle said. She tried later and the system remained down.

Stangle signed up for health insurance through the exchange last year and said she’s extremely satisfied with her coverage. She said she’s not surprised or upset by the first-day shutdown.

“I’ll try tomorrow and see what they tell us,” she said.

Saturday marked the beginning of the second open enrollment in the health exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. It continues through Feb. 15.

Officials are hoping as many as 85,000 people sign up in Washington state this season. They also hope all of the roughly 145,000 people who bought insurance during the first open enrollment period, which began Oct. 1, 2013, will renew for another year.

Nationally, the Obama administration aims to have 9.1 million paying customers enrolled in 2015. That’s well below the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office had projected.

Those who run the exchange in the state of Washington had been hoping their computer system would handle traffic better than it did last year, when it shut down and rejected applications for reasons like a hyphen in a last name. About 1,000 people who bought insurance the first time around still are having problems getting their payments credited and that money transferred to their insurance companies.

People who do not buy insurance will have to pay a fine when they file their income taxes. Those fines start at $95 or 1 percent of 2014 household income, whichever is higher, but the minimum fine for 2015 will be $325 per uninsured person or 2 percent of household income.

Consumers will find more choices this time around, with more insurance plans and more companies on the state’s exchange. Rates have gone up slightly overall, but some people will find cheaper insurance.

The Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.
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