Many will benefit from health exchange

In just a few weeks, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange will open for business, giving uninsured or underinsured South Sound residents and their families an array of options for health care. It’s a historic step toward a more rational and compassionate health care system for a nation blemished by 40 million Americans without insurance.

Fortunately for consumers, the state’s exchange board took advantage of an extended federal deadline and expanded the number of available plans, including some Medicaid providers. On Oct. 1, people can begin choosing from at least 35 individual plans, one small-business plan and four pediatric dental plans.

Thurston County’s more than 55,000 uninsured residents — and nearly one million statewide — will now have affordable access to quality health care and more individual choice within the exchange market than before health care reform.

The benefit of choice comes with the burden of navigating through a maze of options within each plan. It could be confusing, even overwhelming to people, especially those unfamiliar with insurance programs.

The health exchange has simplified the process with an intuitive website that allows users to compare plans and calculate costs for individuals and families. The exchange has wisely already opened its hot line (1-855-923-4633) to answer an expected deluge of questions.

Employees with good plans through their employers may not benefit from the exchange, but many will be comparing costs anyway. And low-income families and the working poor can still secure coverage through Medicaid. It’s those caught in the middle who will benefit the most from exchange pricing.

The penalty for not purchasing insurance — $95 per individual and up to $285 per family — provides a modest incentive. We hope it’s enough to return hospital emergency rooms to those truly in need of urgent care.

The quest to insure more Americans was tried by three former presidents: Truman in the 1940s, Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s and Bill Clinton (or was it really Hillary?) in the 1990s. None of them succeeded. President Barack Obama’s health care reform may not solve all the ills of our nation’s health care system, but on Oct. 1 we’ll be taking a big step in the right direction.

The Washington healthplanfinder website is at www.wahbexchange.org.