Time running short to buy health coverage

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMarch 19, 2014 

The state's uninsured still have about 1 1/2 weeks to buy individual health insurance plans before the open enrollment period ends.

But officials say it's best not to wait.

"It's kind of like doing your taxes or something of that nature, where you want to give yourself enough time to go online, look at what's required in the application process and make sure you have all the information readily at hand," said Michael Marchand, communications director for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Officials locally and around the state are ramping up outreach efforts and preparing for a surge as the March 31 open enrollment deadline nears.

The open enrollment period, which started in October, is for individual plans purchased inside or outside the new state-based exchange. The next open enrollment period starts in mid-November.

People who qualify for Medicaid, which is the state-federal health insurance program for the low income, may enroll any time. In Washington, Medicaid now is called Apple Health.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most Americans must have health insurance this year or face a penalty. Before open enrollment started, officials estimated Washington had about 1 million people without insurance, including about 52,700 in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.

So far, more than 112,200 people in the state have bought private health plans through the exchange, and 357,400 have newly signed up for Apple Health, including 235,000 who became eligible under a federally funded expansion.

The exchange has a customer support center that people can call for enrollment help. The number is 1-855-923-4633.

People also can seek advice and help from insurance brokers and agents.

And many organizations -- including in the Tri-Cities -- have trained in-person assisters available to help people navigate the online enrollment system. The local spots include Tri-Cities Community Health and Community Action Connections, or CAC, both in Pasco.

CAC was one of 10 organizations selected around the state to coordinate regional in-person assister networks. To make a navigator appointment through CAC, call 545-4042.

Tri-Cities Community Health's enrollment center can be reached at 543-1952.

Wes Luckey of CAC, director of the local Navigator In-Person Assister Program, said it's important for the uninsured to become covered. People underestimate the risk they face of becoming ill or injured, and they greatly underestimate the cost of medical care, he said.

"Health care is very, very expensive, and if you go without coverage you've got a one in four chance of losing all your savings," he said, noting that more than two million Americans file for bankruptcy every year because of unpaid medical bills.

The exchange's online marketplace, Washington Healthplanfinder, is at www.wahealthplanfinder.org.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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