Feds could learn from state’s health exchange rollout

The News TribuneOctober 24, 2013 

More than 35,000 state residents have signed up for health care coverage on the wahealthplanfinder.org website.

The federal government has the technological expertise to glean nuggets of intel from millions of emails and phone calls. Yet it couldn’t successfully launch a website to sign up people for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act — even with years of lead time and spending upwards of $400 million.

Sure, there’s a lot of pent-up demand for health care coverage among the 48 million uninsured Americans. So many of them were eager to sign up that they all but crashed the website. But that shouldn’t have come as a big surprise; there’s no excuse for the site’s failure to be ready for prime time.

President Obama has apologized for the problems people have encountered, saying that “Nobody is madder than me” — except perhaps those who spent hours trying to sign up for coverage only to get bumped off the site and told to try again later.

Fortunately, residents of Washington don’t have to try to navigate the hellish HealthCare.gov site. This is one of 15 states that have set up their own exchanges, offering a user-friendly menu of health coverage plans for comparison. The plans were vetted and approved for the exchange by the state insurance commissioner’s office.

Although there were some glitches immediately after the Oct. 1 launch, the state site (wahealthplanfinder.org) has performed much more smoothly since then. So far, more than 35,000 state residents have enrolled with the Washington Health Benefit Exchange — a public-private partnership independent from state government. Another 70,000-plus have applied but haven’t made a premium payment yet. Coverage begins Jan. 1.

State officials’ support for the exchange has played a key role in its success — contrasted with the visceral opposition the ACA has encountered in many other states. There, state officials have refused to set up exchanges or accept Medicaid funds to help poor residents get coverage.

In this state, there have been plenty of TV ads for the exchange as well as outreach efforts to people who might not have computer access. Nearly 100 community organizations are offering education and enrollment activities across the state. And people with questions can call a toll-free hotline (1-855-923-4633 from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays), with help available in up to 175 languages.

Many of those who need coverage will qualify for tax credits or for Medicaid subsidies that will pay for all or part of the cost. And they’re guaranteed coverage under the ACA despite pre-existing conditions.

The state exchange still has a lot of work to do to sign up more of the estimated 1 million Washington residents who lack health care coverage. Those seeking insurance should be grateful they have a more workable way to get that coverage than folks who live in states without their own exchanges.

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