Exchange wisely extends enrollment

Washington’s health insurance exchange ended a disappointing cycle of enrollments Sunday with just under 160,000 individuals signing up for private insurance. That’s not a terrific number, falling below last year’s peak at the Washington Health Benefit Exchange; more enrollments are needed to make the system work.

In recognition of that reality, leaders of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange wisely announced Monday they have extended enrollments for another two months.

We applaud their move for a few reasons.

One reason is cited by exchange Chief Executive Richard Onizuka. It gives consumers who are not yet aware they face future tax penalties more time to get covered. Next year, they’ll have to pay $325 or 2 percent of income as a tax penalty if they are not covered in 2015.

The exchange has more time now to get the word out about the potential penalty for people who haven’t enrolled.

Two, it gives the exchange, which has had widely reported troubles with its online registration portal at wahealthplanfinder.org, more time to fix remaining bugs. The agency’s staff also has more time to assure consumers they can sign up at an exchange that — overall — has been more reliable in most other states.

Three, getting enrollments up will save taxpayers money. That’s because the exchange relies on a 2 percent premiums tax for some of its operating costs. The exchange had been banking on enrolling up to 213,000 people in private plans in the individual market, for about $39 million. The below-target enrollment, if it remains that low, blows a $10 million hole in the exchange’s budget that would have to be made up by the Legislature.

Still, the enrollment news is not all bad — in the big picture. Washington once had 970,000 uninsured residents — or about 14 percent of its population — before the exchange opened Oct. 1, 2013, according to the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

That number of uninsured shrank to about 600,000, or 8.65 percent of residents, as of last August, according to the OIC.

Those rates of uninsured are now likely lower.

In fact, new Medicaid enrollments through January were at 497,945, according to the Health Care Authority, which oversees the Apple Health, or Medicaid program in Washington. Medicaid is the federal and state program that provides free care to poor and low-income families.

Add to that the 160,000 signed up through private plans at the exchange, and the picture gets even better.

A formal report from the OIC, due later this year, can put a more reliable number on how many remain uninsured.

Of course, extra time won’t fix all of the enrollment problems at the exchange, which had trouble transferring payments from consumers to insurers last year.

And there are still unexplained reasons that consumers are not signing up via the exchange. Some may be going directly to brokers if they don’t need tax credits. Others who had insurance and lost their jobs could have dropped their private coverage because they now qualify for Medicaid.

The exchange now has extra time to dig into data, learn what’s wrong and fix problems — then prove those problems are fixed.