The recent prolonged outages of the state health-insurance-exchange website have fueled a sense of concern and urgency that many consumers won’t have enough time to sign up for coverage that kicks in with the new year.
Officials of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which operates the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange, said Thursday that they have heard a lot of concern from Washington residents in recent days, especially after the four days of website outages last week and intermittent outages this week.
“We’re aware that it’s created a lot of angst in the community,” exchange CEO Richard Onizuka said at the exchange board’s monthly meeting Thursday in SeaTac. “We’re seeing a high level of frustration.”
Board member Melanie Curtice, a partner at Stoel Rives law firm, said she’s “certainly getting phone calls and emails, and I’m sure others are as well.”
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The most immediate concern for many consumers is a Dec. 23 deadline to apply through the website for coverage that begins Jan. 1.
The outage also accelerated the number of phone calls to an already overloaded customer-support center, causing more frustration among those unable to get to agents there.
It also has led to the state insurance commissioner to suggest strongly that consumers try other avenues to sign up for insurance, including using the services of an insurance agent or broker.
Onizuka acknowledged that after last week’s website outages, there has been a lot of pent-up activity on the Healthplanfinder website, as consumers have rushed to get back on the site to try to complete their applications.
He said the exchange is doing everything it can to make sure as many people as possible can get through the enrollment process on time. To that end, it has decided to put off making any more updates or improvements to the site until after Dec. 23.
Until the recent outages, the exchange had pursued an aggressive schedule of updates and improvements aimed at fixing problems on the site.
“We’re just trying to keep the system stable right now,” he said.
The exchange also is trying to improve capacity at its customer-support center, which continues to get deluged with calls from consumers seeking help with their applications.
In December, the customer-support center has been receiving 10,000 to 20,000 calls each weekday, much more than it expected, said Beth Walters, the exchange’s operations director.
On Monday, the center received about 25,000 calls, the most so far in a single day.
The exchange has doubled its staff at the customer-support center.
By next Monday it expects to have 286 customer-support representatives, including 248 handling calls and 38 processing paper applications. Walters said the center will hire 40 more people to start Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, the insurance commissioner and the exchange are recommending that consumers contact an insurance agent, broker or “in-person assister” as soon as possible if they need help completing their application on time.
Commissioner Mike Kreidler, in a statement released Thursday, urged consumers who need coverage starting Jan. 1 to explore all of their options for health insurance.
He recommended that consumers also look at policies sold outside the exchange if they have incomes too high to qualify for the premium subsidies that are available to those who enroll in plans on Healthplanfinder.
The exchange is expecting a huge surge of people will try completing their enrollment in the next 10 days.
A lot of applicants have yet to complete the process. By the end of November, about 20,000 residents had completed their enrollment in a qualified health plan (QHP) available on Healthplanfinder, according to a report the exchange released Thursday at the board meeting.
That is significantly more than the 6,300 residents who had completed enrollment in a plan by the end of October, but it’s far short of the 130,000 the exchange had projected would enroll in the plans by Jan. 1.
Among the approximately 20,000 enrollees, about 16,000 qualified for federal tax credits to offset the cost of coverage.
Young adults ages 18 to 34 made up about 18 percent of those who enrolled in the plans through November; Those 55 to 64 made up more than 40 percent.
About 60 percent of people who bought plans on Healthplanfinder chose plans at the “silver” level, which is the middle tier of coverage.
In addition to completed enrollments, about 54,000 residents completed applications, but had not yet submitted their payment information, the final step in the enrollment process.
About 72,000 residents started applications that were still “in process” at the end of November.
Approximately 160,000 residents enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program, Apple Health, during the same period.
The current open-enrollment period for Healthplanfinder continues until March 31, 2014.
People who don’t enroll in time for coverage starting Jan. 1 will have three more months to get coverage without being liable for a penalty.