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Whatcom County residents sign up for insurance amid uncertainty over fate of Obamacare

Brad Finnegan demonstrates the Washington Healthplanfinder website. Washington was among the states to set up its own exchange, where people who don’t have insurance through their employers can buy a plan.
Brad Finnegan demonstrates the Washington Healthplanfinder website. Washington was among the states to set up its own exchange, where people who don’t have insurance through their employers can buy a plan. AP

People wondering whether to sign up for health insurance for 2017 amid President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to dismantle Obamacare, or replace parts of it, have been told to stick with buying their plans during this open enrollment period.

Despite what happens in Washington, D.C., in the coming days, coverage will continue in 2017 for those enrolled because coverage is a contract between the insurance carrier and the client, according to Nicolas Jensen, Navigator Program regional manager for the North Sound Region.

Navigators are trained to help people enroll through Washington Healthplanfinder, which is the name for the state exchange.

“That won’t just disappear through any type of executive order or any type of repeal of the Affordable Care Act,” Jensen said. “We don’t expect there to be, hopefully, many changes due to Washington state having its own stand-alone marketplace. It’s separate from the federal marketplace.”

Washington was among the states to set up its own exchange, where people who don’t have insurance through their employers can buy a plan. This enrollment period marks the first time people have been able to buy dental insurance, as well as health coverage, through the exchange.

Open enrollment runs through Jan. 31 for 2017 coverage, but it’s best to buy by Dec. 15 for coverage to begin Jan. 1.

Those helping people sign up for coverage said they have been fielding phone calls from some worried consumers and telling them, essentially, to stay the course when they ask,“What should I do now?”

“It’s very important that people take advantage of the time now to get health insurance. Many people will qualify for financial help or free coverage, depending on their income,” said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

That free coverage comes via Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, which provides health care to those who are low-income. Washington state opted into the expansion and now fears it might have to foot the bill, or see many low-income residents become uninsured again, if the federal money for the expansion – which allowed 680,000 residents to gain coverage – is yanked.

The number of uninsured in Whatcom County has dropped since Obamacare went into effect, from 28,999 people in 2012 to 14,846 two years later, according to a report from the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

That meant the uninsured rate in Whatcom County declined from 14.3 percent in 2012 to 7.1 percent in 2014.

As for people signing up for coverage during the open enrollment period, Marchand said that number was steady.

“This is the time to shop and to get the coverage,” Marchand said. “Anything they purchase for 2017 will be good.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Get coverage help

What: People can learn about enrolling for health care coverage during an event hosted by Unity Care NW and the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement.

When: 4 to 7 p.m. Dec. 8

Where: Kulshan Brewery’s second location, (also known as K2) 1538 Kentucky St. in Bellingham

Event details: 360-788-2669

Learn more: Find information about dental and health care plans by going online to the Washington state exchange at wahealthplanfinder.org. Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement in Bellingham and other organizations also help people enroll in health insurance. Call the alliance at 360-788-6594 or go to its website at whatcomalliance.org to find a list of those who can help and informational events.

This open enrollment period is for people buying private health and dental insurance plans.

People can enroll year-round for Medicaid, known in the state as Washington Apple Health.

Remember that most people who don’t have health coverage face a fine.

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