COBRA enrollees have until July 1 to switch to health exchange

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 23, 2014 

Washington residents getting health insurance through COBRA have until July 1 to switch to a plan through the state's insurance marketplace, which is called an exchange.

The limited enrollment period is for those now receiving insurance through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which allows people who lose their jobs to continue getting the health plan offered by their former employers, although they must pay the full cost of the premium.

The offer for current COBRA recipients to enroll in a health plan through wahealthplanfinder.org could affect thousands of state residents, including many in Whatcom County, although exactly how many isn't known.

Current COBRA enrollees are being encouraged to check their options through the state exchange because they could save money with a different plan or qualify for subsidized insurance.

The premium for employer-sponsored plans averaged $15,745 for a family and $5,615 for an individual in 2012, according to a July 2013 federal report titled "Health Insurance Continuation Coverage Under COBRA."

While still employed, workers would have paid an average of 18 percent of the premium for single coverage and 28 percent of the premium for family coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey cited in the federal report.

Under COBRA, they would pay 100 percent plus another 2 percent for administrative costs, according to the report.

"In the good old days, COBRA was really the only option for many people in order to continue coverage," said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange. "In some instances, it's not cheap."

Officials also are trying to reach out to a group of people who might not know much about the state's insurance marketplace.

"People who have had employer-based coverage tend to have lower awareness about the health benefit exchange in general. They know it's out there, but it hasn't really applied to them," said Dorothy Bradshaw of the nonprofit Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement.

Residents now covered by COBRA who want to apply during this special enrollment period should:

-- Fill out an application on wahealthplanfinder.org. People also can find, on the website, an insurance broker or a navigator to help them.

-- Those eligible for what's called a qualified health plan will be prompted to complete a special enrollment questionnaire; answer "no" to the questions provided.

-- Complete and submit an electronic request form at https://seprequest.wahealthplanfinder.org before 11:59 p.m. July 1.

-- Applicants must supply documents to verify their eligibility, such as a COBRA election notice or documentation from a group plan indicating they are a COBRA beneficiary, before they are enrolled.

As for those who might soon be losing their jobs and their job-based insurance, Bradshaw encouraged them to check out the state's exchange first before signing up for COBRA. (Job loss is a qualifying event that allows people to sign up for health insurance outside of an open enrolment period.)

"Look at your options," she said. "That's the big message."

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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