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The Washington online insurance exchange has pushed back a key, looming deadline for individuals who still hope to enroll in health coverage that will start the first of the year.

Washington residents hoping to purchase an individual health-insurance policy through the Washington Healthplanfinder online marketplace have faced a Dec. 23 deadline to complete their application, select a plan and make their first premium payment if they want coverage that starts Jan. 1, 2014.

But with that deadline just days away, it has become clear that many Washington residents who want to purchase coverage through the exchange continue to run into website problems that prevent them from completing the application, potentially leaving them without coverage Jan. 1.

So the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, the public-private partnership that operates Healthplanfinder, announced Wednesday that the enrollment and payment deadline would be extended to Jan. 15 for people who remain in the process through no fault of their own.

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“We understand the frustration this has caused and realize that we must honor the promise we made to thousands of people in our state that Washington Healthplanfinder will empower them in finding and enrolling in health coverage,” exchange CEO Richard Onizuka said in a statement.

Only to individuals

The three-week extension applies only to individuals who have started an application before 11:59 p.m. Dec. 23 and who cannot complete enrollment by that time because of problems on the site. The website has had a series of problems in recent weeks, including a four-day outage.

There continue to be technical glitches that produce error codes and other kinds of problems for many users.

People who need more time to complete the process will have until Jan. 15 to get coverage, which will be retroactive to Jan. 1, exchange officials said.

Soon after Dec. 23, the exchange will send correspondence to people explaining how they can still complete their application for coverage that starts at the beginning of the year.

Anyone who has not started an application by Dec. 23 will have to wait to get coverage that starts Feb. 1.

Exchange officials said they have worked closely with the insurance companies to reach agreement on the extension. Onizuka said over the weekend that he hoped to announce an agreement by the middle of this week.

But some insurance companies apparently were caught off-guard by Wednesday’s announcement.

“It took us a little by surprise, because we haven’t ironed out of all the details yet,” said Eric Earling, a spokesman for Premera Blue Cross and its subsidiary LifeWise Health Plan of Washington, which are both offering plans on Healthplanfinder.

Premera and LifeWise are “committed to making this work for consumers,” Earling said. But he added that many of the details of its implementation still need to be resolved.

“Obviously, we’re hopeful this will offer additional options for consumers,” he said, “but the reality of the timelines involved means there are going to be some logistical challenges.”

Other companies offering plans on Healthplanfinder were not immediately prepared to comment on the exchange’s announcement.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to comment on this until we have a better understanding of this process and how it will impact the consumer and providers,” said Julie Keefe, director of exchange strategy and implementation at Community Health Plan of Washington.

Exchange spokesman Michael Marchand acknowledged late Wednesday that not all of the details had been worked out with the insurance companies.

“There will still be a number of conversations about how this will be done,” Marchand said. “We understand how this creates an additional administrative burden for them. They’ve been very accommodating, and that’s not something that is lost on us here.”

The exchange cannot require insurers to provide an extension, but an insurer that does not do so could be at a competitive disadvantage among customers seeking Jan. 1 coverage.

Similar extensions are spreading across the country.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a national association that represents health-insurance companies, announced Wednesday that its member companies had agreed to voluntarily extend the deadline for consumers to pay their first month’s premium to Jan. 10, 2014.

“Right thing to do”

Mark Ganz, the incoming board chairman of AHIP, is president and CEO of Cambia Health Solutions, the parent company of Regence BlueShield and BridgeSpan, one of the companies offering plans on Healthplanfinder.

In a statement Wednesday, he said that giving people more time to pay their first premium “is the right thing to do for our members who are justifiably anxious and confused by problems in the state and federal health care exchanges.”

Ganz said Cambia will continue to work closely with exchange partners.

The state Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) was involved in conversations with the exchange about the latter’s discussions with the insurance companies.

“We’re very supportive of the arrangement they’ve worked out and are hopeful it will help people get the coverage they need,” OIC spokesman Stephanie Marquis said.

The exchange also released updated enrollment figures Wednesday.

As of Dec. 12, more than 32,000 individuals have completed enrollment in a private health plan through Healthplanfinder.

In addition, 61,000 individuals have completed their applications and selected a plan but not yet submitted payment information.

Open enrollment continues until March 31 for people to purchase a health plan through the state and federal insurance marketplaces that have been established under the Affordable Care Act.

Amy Snow Landa is a freelance writer in Seattle. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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