Highlight on Washington: Cash Influx & Mall Visits Help Exchange Toward Goals

Washington Healthplanfinder, the state’s Health Insurance Exchange, has enrolled 127,000 Washingtonians in qualified health plans during the 2014-2015 open enrollment period, around 40,000 of whom are new enrollees. In order for the state to meet its goals for open enrollment, which ends on February 15, 2015, an additional 88,000 individuals will need to enroll; according to the Associated Press, state health officials said they wanted to renew all 130,000 policies purchased during the first open enrollment period (October 1, 2013-March 31, 2014), and they hope to sign up 85,000 new enrollees.

Washington Healthplanfinder

Washington Healthplanfinder was established as an Exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), and allows individuals, families and small businesses in Washington to compare and enroll in health insurance coverage and gain access to tax credits, reduced cost sharing, and public programs such as Medicaid. Healthplanfinder is operated by the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, a public-private partnership that is separate from the state and governed by an independent 11-member board.

Enrollment Outreach

Since the beginning of the second open enrollment period on November 15, 2014, the Exchange has engaged in a statewide integrated advertising and outreach campaign to encourage Washington residents to sign up or renew their health insurance plans. The campaign includes TV, radio, digital, print, and out-of-home advertising, as well as grassroots activities, innovative partnerships, and social media outreach. Michael Marchand, Director of Communications for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, explained that one of the Exchange’s goals is “to further drive awareness of the opportunity to enroll in low-cost and free health plans among our harder-to-reach populations across the state.”

More recently, the Exchange partnered with the Obama administration to create a public service announcement promoting Washington Healthplanfinder using two members of the Seattle Seahawks football team, quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman. HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said, “I want to thank Russell and Richard for volunteering their time to raise awareness around the importance of enrolling in health insurance coverage and join them in calling for new and existing customers to visit Washington Healthplanfinder to check out their options.”

Statewide Mall Enrollment Drive

On January 24, 2015, Washington Healthplanfinder’s It’s About Time: Enrollment Drive provided in-person help in eight locations, including six shopping malls, for residents who would like to enroll in a health plan for 2015 coverage. Richard Onizuka, CEO for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, said, “Our customer support network can provide the assistance Washingtonians need to find the right plan to fit their needs and budget. Washingtonians should take advantage of the expert help available if they need assistance enrolling in a health plan.” Washington Health Benefit Exchange Director of Communications Michael Marchand added, “These events are a great way to connect with someone in your local community who can walk you through the process from start to finish.”

Customer Service Problems

The Washington Health Benefit Exchange board surveyed 8,116 people regarding their experiences using Washington Healthplanfinder. All individuals surveyed either enrolled in qualified health plans or Medicaid through the Exchange, or interacted with the Exchange website but either did not enroll or were later un-enrolled. The Puget Sound Business Journal reported that 64 percent of the surveyed individuals did not have problems applying or enrolling with Healthplanfinder, but 28 percent of respondents labeled the enrollment process difficult. Additionally, almost 30 percent reported technical problems with the website, while 23 percent said unanswered phone calls and emails to customer service were a problem due to staffing shortages. Onizuka said, “Customers should contact us as soon as possible if they need assistance with their application.”

The Exchange received a $27 million grant from the federal government to improve its website by making it easier to use, as well as adding some functions, including new ways to search for doctors and adult dental coverage. The Associated Press reported that the Washington Health Benefit Exchange board’s top priority for the funding is making the website stable and offering a good customer experience.

Low Enrollment

Despite its outreach and customer service improvement efforts, the Exchange is falling short of its goals. Exchange data shows that thousands of customers completed an application for 2015 coverage but did not submit payment in a timely manner. Onizuka explained that the Exchange has “seen communications from insurance companies that may have caused renewing customers to misunderstand what was required of them regarding the renewal process.” The Seattle Times reported that the carriers’ messages mistakenly indicated that previously-enrolled consumers did not need to take any action if they wanted to keep their current plan. However, the Times reported that this message is “not true,” and reminded consumers to contact the Exchange to renew or change plans.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said, “Any Qualified Health Plan customer who experienced confusion around the renewal process–especially those who were unaware that additional action was needed on their account–should take advantage of [additional notices the Exchange will send to enrollees.] We want to ensure that customers are receiving accurate information to avoid any impact to their coverage.”

Customers who are unsure of their current enrollment status should review their online account or contact the toll-free Customer Support Center at 1-855-923-4633. Local navigators and insurance brokers can be located via wahealthplanfinder.org and are available to answer questions.

Onizuka stated, “Washington residents who have not yet taken action to sign up for health coverage should remember that more than 85 percent of customers were able to receive financial help to pay for their coverage last year. The penalty is also increasing this year to $325 per individual or up to 2 percent of your income, so it’s worth taking another look at your health plan options on wahealthplanfinder.org.”