State health exchange CEO: Prices may surprise

bshannon@theolympian.comSeptember 30, 2013 

Washington Health Benefit Exchange CEO Richard Onizuka discusses the program in his Olympia office.


Washington’s health-insurance exchange opens for business Tuesday, offering a new way for individuals to buy coverage from private companies.

Three years in the making, the exchange is being run by the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, a nongovernmental organization created by the Legislature.

The Washington Healthplanfinder, available at, has details on more than 40 insurance plan options and cost estimators that help explain what kind of tax assistance consumers can get to defray premium costs.

Richard Onizuka, the chief executive officer who oversees the exchange, says that with tax credits many consumers can find a better deal than they can get today on the individual insurance market. But prices vary by policy, family size and incomes.

“I think the best message is ‘go and look.’ Everybody should go and look and see what’s available, because you might be surprised,” Onizuka said.

The health policy office of Gov. Jay Inslee predicts as many as 130,000 individuals and families will sign up to buy insurance plans through Healthplanfinder by year’s end – with the number growing to 280,000 by the end of 2014. About 90 percent are expected to receive some kind of financial assistance.

Another 190,000 consumers are expected to be routed into government-paid Medicaid coverage by January — with that figure growing to 247,000 by the end of next year.

If all that happens, half of the state’s 1 million uninsured residents would gain coverage over the next 15 months.

During a conversation with The Olympian, Onizuka answered many questions about the program:

Q: What are you most worried about going wrong with the exchange?

A: What we’ve seen in some of our consumer testing is some issues around signing on and creating an account, which consumers will have to do. (But) the navigators (who give local assistance to consumers) are out there in the communities; they are working really hard.

Q: How much time should people allow?

A: It varies based on multiple family members and income levels. It also depends how long you want to shop. … So you can spend a little bit of time trying to compare (plans) and finding what works best for you. But you could also make a really quick choice if you want to. … So an hour would be good. You are going to create an account so you can always leave and come back. You can save your work, remember your account login and you can always come back to pick it up where you left off.

Q: Are you equipped to handle those who never want to use a computer in their lifetimes?

A: Yes, they can call a call center (toll free at 855-923-4633). They can find a navigator (Choice Regional Network in Thurston County; Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in Pierce County). They can find an agent or broker. We feel like we have a lot of customer service available.

Q: Are you encountering any active campaign to discourage Washington consumers from buying private-company coverage through the exchanges?

A: I have seen some (national) don’t-sign-up ads on the Internet. That’s about it. I haven’t seen anything local. I think Washington is really engaged in this and looking forward to Tuesday.

Q: Why would we be different?

A: My opinion is we have been engaged in trying to get health reform for a long time. Washington has been doing things like (health reform) for 20 years, so I think Washington is looking forward to it.

Q: You have a couple of ads up on television and radio. (One has an upended snowboarder taking chances without coverage, and another shows a raccoon jumping out of a trash can toward a woman who is looking for her cat after dark.) Which is your favorite?

A: (Laughs). I like the snowboarder because it is a real situation; to me it speaks to Washington. I thought the raccoon was not very likely but then we did focus groups and people said, “I’ve had encounters with raccoons.” ... My dogs have had run-ins.

Q: Is there really a $100 a month option for insurance?

A: Yes, I actually got on it myself. I put in for Thurston County, somebody who is about 28 years old and makes about — I think I put in $20,000 a year, just to test — and it came out about $100.

Q: Do you expect that to be a good enough deal that the so-called “invincibles” — younger healthy people who don’t feel they need insurance — will give this a serious look?

A: I think it will. Besides just the cost, there is a value to having health insurance and a there’s a value to having the security of health insurance. Knowing that if you get sick you can go to the doctor. Knowing that if you broke your ankle snowboarding you can get that fixed.

Q: What about minority communities that traditionally have not had as much insurance coverage?

A: We have a lot of (partner) organizations that are in those communities. We have worked with a lot of faith based organizations and others in those communities. We’ve got a lot of advertising in those communities. (A Spanish-language option will be available on the website.)

Q: Are you concerned that there won’t be enough doctors to serve the newly insured patients?

A: I think there are some concerns in some of the rural areas and particularly with some of the specialties. But … carriers have done a really good job of trying to make sure their networks are adequate and have enough capacity to handle what we are going to see.

Q: Can consumers expect to find coverage through the exchange that costs less than they have been paying in the individual market?

A: I think yes. Some people will get benefits from the tax credits. But also benefits from the fact you now can make comparisons and you’ll get more benefits. I think the message is go and look to see what you can find. Everybody’s situation is a little different.

Q: For those who buy insurance outside the exchanges, do you think prices will be much different?

A: They’ll get a comparable product and they’ll get a comparable price. But what they won’t be able to get is any kind of financial assistance. They’ll have the same types of products inside and outside the exchange.

Q: What sort of feedback are you getting from businesses and small business owners?

A: I think small businesses are looking for an opportunity to provide their employees health insurance and for an affordable option. Because we don’t have a robust SHOP (Small Business Health Options Program, an exchange which links small businesses with tax credits) yet, it’s hard to offer them something, but we hope that will happen next year.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 @bradshannon2

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