The Washington Health Benefit Exchange has gotten very busy ahead of today’s (Dec. 23) deadline for sign-ups. Thousands of people were expected to visit its online portal at wahealthplanfinder.org to buy health-insurance policies. Those signing up by midnight tonight can ensure coverage starts or resumes Jan. 1.
Those uninsured in 2016 face tax penalties that grow larger each year under the federal Affordable Care Act. There is a second deadline Jan. 31 for those who missed getting a full year’s coverage and want it to start a little later.
Michael Marchand, spokesman for the state exchange, said there did not appear to be a recent falloff in consumer interest in coverage despite uncertainty about the federal government’s long-term support of the ACA. As of Monday night, the exchange had seen 162,000 people sign up — close to its goal of getting 165,000 accounts open and paid for by the end of January.
In its third major sign-up push in as many years, the state exchange has gradually gotten bugs out of its online software. During the grand ACA debut in October 2013, glitches shut down the state exchange for most of the day.
Last year, repetitive glitches kept confirmation of thousands of consumers’ payments to the exchange from getting on to insurers. This left many Washington consumers without evidence of coverage when they showed up at pharmacies, clinics or hospital emergency rooms.
Eventually the exchange gave up trying to collect premiums and passing them on to insurers; consumers now register for individual policies through the exchange and send payments directly to insurers — just as consumers buying through an insurance broker would do.
Through it all, the ranks of our state’s uninsured are shrinking in number — from nearly 1 million before ACA enrollments started in 2013 to a figure somewhere less than half that. So progress is being made.
Nationally the ranks of the uninsured have fallen from more than 43 million to less than 29 million early this year, according to a survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 9.2 percent uninsured rate was the lowest in decades.
Washington’s uninsured rate is a matter of debate. A state-by-state Gallup poll this year put Washington at 6.4 percent uninsured, which may be optimistic, according to the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. OIC is doing its own analysis.
The major gains in insuring residents have been through the dramatic expansion of Medicaid to allow higher income eligibility and coverage of adults without children in states that agreed to it.
Data from the state Health Care Authority, which runs Medicaid, show that 575,000 Washingtonians gained access as a result Medicaid expansion.
Other reports show that affordability remains an issue for those who must buy policies. A survey released this month by Northwest Health Law Advocates found costs were the most-often cited barrier to sign-ups as reported by health care navigators in Washington. Navigators are designated organizations that help the public sign up for coverage under the ACA.
So there’s progress, not perfection.