State health exchange ready to launch; help available in Whatcom County

ASSOCIATED PRESSOctober 1, 2013 

Officials launching Washington state's new health insurance exchange have said they aren't concerned that computer glitches, bad weather or even debates in Washington, D.C., over a possible government shutdown will stop people from signing up for health insurance when the marketplace debuts on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

"We're not really worried about that," said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which runs the Washington state programs involved in President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

They're not worried about being overwhelmed by consumer phone calls or Internet traffic or even political protests when the exchange opens, he said.

State Sen. Karen Keiser says the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and nothing that happens in Washington, D.C., this week will change that.

"This isn't a one-day event. This is a landmark in history," said Keiser, D-Kent.

Washington residents have six months to buy health insurance through the new exchange during the first enrollment period, which ends in March.

They can sign up online at the Washington Healthplanfinder, on the telephone or in person at community centers, fire stations, libraries, churches and during special events.

The state hopes to enroll 130,000 people for health insurance in 2014 and another 280,000 in 2015, said Richard Onizuka, CEO of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

The state estimates about a million Washington state residents do not have health insurance, or about one in seven people. About 325,000 will be eligible to sign up for free insurance through Medicaid.

Others will get a discount on their insurance through a credit on their federal taxes. To find out if they qualify for a tax credit or may be eligible for Medicaid or another program for free insurance for kids, people will need to fill out forms online or access the exchange by telephone or in person.

The exchange will ask for some personal information, such as Social Security numbers, ages and income, but people who just want to check it out and not sign up yet can do so anonymously. The length of the sign-up process depends on how many people live in a household and how much comparison shopping is done.

Under the Affordable Care Act, people who don't have insurance in 2014 will pay a fine when they file their federal income taxes in early 2015. The fines for people who ignore the new law are scheduled to increase over time.

"We want 6.5 million people to go to healthplanfinder to check it out," Marchand said.

He said testing and training has been done to handle a lot of visitors with different needs, and the website has been stress-tested to handle large numbers of visitors.

"We understand anything could be possible and we've taken the steps to make sure we're ready for that," Marchand said.

SIGNING UP IN WHATCOM COUNTY

• Go online to wahealthplanfinder.org to compare private health insurance plans, costs, coverage levels and to enroll.

• Dial the call center toll-free at 1-855-923-4633 to enroll and get customer support. Help will be available in up to 175 languages, with trained representatives available 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays.

• Enroll with one-on-one help from an in-person assister through Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement; Interfaith Community Health Center; Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood; Opportunity Council; and Sea Mar Community Health Clinic. Go to whatcomalliance.org/get-enrolled for the list of in-person assister organizations, and their contact information to make an appointment.

• Enroll with the help of more than 1,000 registered insurance brokers. Unlike assisters, they can recommend a specific plan based on your needs and budget. Just make sure it's one of the more than 40 health plans offered through Washington Healthplanfinder if you want to be eligible for financial help. Go to wahealthplanfinder.org or contact the call center to make sure you're dealing with a broker registered by the state exchange.

- THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

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