The number of people signing up for health insurance through the Washington Health Benefit Exchange is less than previous years, but more customers are renewing insurance than in years past.

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New sign-ups for Obamacare in Washington state are behind last year, yet a record number of people here are renewing their coverage as the enrollment period for 2019 nears its end.

The enrollment period ends Saturday for insurance coverage beginning Jan. 1.

The Washington Health Benefit Exchange has had more than 206,000 sign-ups since enrollment opened Nov. 1. Of that number, 85 percent are customers renewing coverage and about 15 percent are new sign-ups. Last year 240,000 people signed up with nearly 209,000 following through with payments to receive health insurance. About 66 percent were renewing customers and 34 percent new enrollees for 2018.

For the first time Washington has shortened its sign-up period to mirror the federal government’s. In prior years enrollment stretched from Nov. 1 to mid-January. This year the enrollment ends Saturday, as does enrollment for the federally run Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, and in most states running their own health-insurance exchanges.

Michael Marchand, spokesman and chief marketing officer for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, points to the healthy economy and changes in how the federal government supports the ACA. “Some of that may have to do with the economy, unemployment is down,” he said. “The mandate going away does play a role in people buying insurance.”

This is the first enrollment period without the individual mandate, which penalized people on their tax returns who did not buy health insurance. The individual mandate was eliminated in the tax overhaul approved by Congress at the end of 2017.

Another factor that could play into fewer new customers is that about 95 percent of Washington residents are insured. The remaining 5 percent are thought to be the most difficult populations to reach for a number of reasons.

Marchand said it might be an affordability issue or traditionally disenfranchised groups who for one reason or another are skeptical about alerting the government to their presence. When the ACA began in 2013, 14 percent of Washingtonians were uninsured.

Despite the decrease in people selecting plans, Washington’s exchange is faring better than the federally run website, which is seeing an 8 percent decrease in renewals and a 20 percent decrease in new sign-ups compared to last year, according to the most recent report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Trump administration has made it easier for people to buy lower-cost, short-term health-insurance plans. These plans, which could be picking off ACA customers, often don’t cover things like prescriptions drugs and pre-existing conditions.

The CEO of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange said these last few days are critical in the effort to get as many people insured as possible.

“For individuals and families who have not yet signed up in a health and dental plan for next year, this is a critical point in the open enrollment period,” said Pam MacEwan, who urged people to “explore their options and connect with a plan before it is too late.”

The growing number of people renewing and signing up this week has accelerated by the day. On Tuesday, the exchange had a 25 percent bump in new applications compared to Monday. Marchand expects that number to grow day-over-day through the week.

To help people trying to enroll now and beat the Saturday deadline, the exchange’s support center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and 7:30 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 855-923-4633 for information. Information is available in a few languages. 

Premiums on Washington’s individual market went up this year. The Office of the Insurance Commissioner approved an average 13.6 percent increase for the 74 plans on the individual market. Health insurers were seeking an average 19.4 percent increase. Premiums have increased the four years before 2019, from 1 percent in 2015; inching up to 4 percent in 2016; 11 percent for 2017 and about 24 percent this year.