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Washington extends health insurance sign-ups for certain categories

Washington state will open a special enrollment period for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act that extends through tax-filing season.

The state announced the extended enrollment opportunity Monday; it starts today and runs through April 17.

The state operates its own online insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act. Bethany Frey, spokeswoman for Washington Healthplanfinder, said the new enrollment period is designed to help people who either tried to enroll but ran into technical problems, or who didn’t know that they face hefty penalties for not having health coverage until they file a tax return.

Those penalties, collected by the Internal Revenue Service, amount to $325 per adult and $162.50 per child. There’s a family maximum penalty of $975 or 2 percent of income, whichever is greater.

“It’s really in the best interest of the consumer that we’re doing this,” Frey said.

Open enrollment ended Sunday night. The Washington exchange said 160,000 signed up for private insurance, including 66,000 new customers and about 94,000 people who renewed insurance they bought during the previous open enrollment period. The exchange is still more than 50,000 away from its enrollment goal of 213,000 for this year, however.

Richard Onizuka, CEO for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, acknowledged that the deadline extension will likely help the exchange get closer to its enrollment goal, but said that isn’t the point.

Experts in personal finance have been warning for weeks that many Americans won’t know they face penalties for not having insurance until they file their tax returns. Tax preparation giant H&R Block has estimated that roughly 4 million uninsured people will pay penalties.

Since both the subsidies and penalties under the health law are administered through the tax system, some experts have urged the Obama administration to permanently schedule sign-up season to overlap with tax-filing season.

Three senior Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, are asking the Obama administration to create a special enrollment period nationally, saying millions of Americans facing the new tax penalties deserve a second chance.

Health care exchanges offered by states through the federal system granted a short extension for people who were having technical problems enrolling, but it ends Feb. 22.

Frey, of Washington Healthplanfinder, said Washington can take the action on its own under federal rules because the special enrollment is offered to two groups: people who weren’t aware of the penalty and people who experienced technical difficulties in trying to enroll. People who want to sign up under the special enrollment will have to attest that they fall into one of those two groups.

The offer “does follow guidelines for special enrollment,” Frey said.

Premera Blue Cross, one of the largest insurers in the Pacific Northwest, supports the special enrollment opportunity, said spokeswoman Melanie Coon.

She noted, however, that people who want to buy insurance in the special enrollment period must go through the state exchange. During the recently ended open enrollment, they also were able to buy coverage directly from insurers.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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