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Washington health insurance marketplace

Enrollment for 2016 exceeds 200,000

  • By
  • contributor
  • February 2, 2016

Extension for people with tech problems

January 31 was the last day to enroll in an individual health plan for 2016, including both on and off-exchange plans.  Now that open enrollment has ended, plan changes and new enrollments can generally only be made by people who experience a qualifying event, although Native Americans can enroll year-round, as can anyone eligible for Medicaid (Apple Health) or CHIP.

But on January 30, Washington Healthplanfinder announced that the state system that determines eligibility for Apple Health and premium subsidies had experienced an unplanned outage. It began at around 5:30am, and wasn’t fixed until 7:30pm. The notice about the outage stated that if applicants were unable to complete their enrollment because of the problem, the enrollment could be finished after January 31 – but Washington Healthplanfinder noted that they would be the ones to make the decision about whether or not applications were impacted by the outage, on a case by case basis.

Enrollees whose application was delayed as a result of technology problems at Washington Healthplanfinder can contact the exchange at 1-855-923-4633 to request additional time to select a plan. They must do so by Sunday, Feb. 7 at 8 p.m., and must “provide an explanation of the issue they encountered.” The exchange will then determine whether the applicant can still make a plan selection. The call center is open the first week in February from Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

2016 enrollment

Washington Healthplanfinder reported that more than 200,000 people had enrolled in private plans through the exchange by the end of open enrollment (up from 188,000 as of January 23, and 190,000 as of the middle of the final week of open enrollment).

To put that number in perspective, 170,101 people enrolled in plans through the exchange during the 2015 open enrollment period, and there were 152,517 people with in-force private plan coverage through Washington’s exchange in October 2015, just prior to the start of the 2016 open enrollment period.

Washington Healthplanfinder is one of three exchanges that allows enrollments to be completed as late as the 23rd of the month for a first of the following month effective date. So enrollees in Washington had until January 23 to enroll and pick a plan with a February effective date. Enrollments completed between January 24 and January 31 will have coverage effective March 1.

Moda Health, Columbia United Providers exitWashington

On October 28, Moda Health announced they are exiting the Washington market in order to focus on Alaska and Oregon. Effective immediately, they ceased sales and renewal of health plans in Washington, and 47,000 existing policy-holders had to select coverage from a different carrier for 2016.

Moda’s exit is due at least in part to the risk corridor shortfall that was announced by the federal government on October 1. The carrier had been expecting $90 million, but found out that they would only receive about $11 million. The risk corridor shortfall has been directly implicated in the closure of six CO-OPs, and the exit of WINhealth from the individual market in Wyoming and Coventry from the Kansas exchange.

Ultimately, Moda also ended up exiting the individual markets in Alaska and Oregon in late January, after suffering significant financial losses in 2015.

In mid-November, Columbia United Providers also announced that they would exit the individual market in Washington. Their plans were only available in Clark County, and they only had about 100 enrollees (all through Washington Healthplanfinder) as of November 2015. Since CUP’s announcement came after the start of open enrollment, some residents in Clark County had already selected CUP plans for 2016. Washington Healthplanfinder reached out to those enrollees and helped them select new plans for 2016. The exchange noted that there are still five carriers offering plans in 2016 in Clark County.

Anyone on a 2015 plan from Moda Health or CUP is eligible for a special enrollment period triggered by loss of coverage, which is a qualifying event. If they haven’t yet picked a replacement plan, they can do so until February 29, since their special enrollment period continues for 60 days following loss of coverage. But there’s no provision for retroactive coverage during the special enrollment period; people who lost coverage under Moda or CPU and didn’t enroll in a new plan until January 1 or later will have a gap in coverage between the loss of their old plan and the start of their new plan.

New carriers, more plans

In 2014, eight insurers offered individual policies through the Washington Healthplanfinder.  That grew to ten carriers for 2015 (Columbia United Providers and Moda Health Plan were new to the exchange for 2015, but neither is participating in 2016). And for 2016, there are three new carriers that have joined the exchange: Health Alliance Northwest, Regence Blue Shield, and UnitedHealthcare of Washington. Even with the exit of Moda and CPU from the Washington market, there are still 11 carriers offering individual plans through Washington Healthplanfinder in 2016:

  • Bridgespan
  • Community Health Plan of Washington
  • Coordinated Care
  • Group Health Cooperative
  • Health Alliance Northwest
  • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest
  • LifeWise
  • Molina Healthcare of Washington
  • Premera Blue Cross
  • Regence Blue Shield
  • UnitedHealthcare of Washington

Not all carriers offer plans in all areas of the state; LifeWise and UnitedHealthcare are the only two carriers that offer plans in all 39 counties in Washington.  But available options have increased significantly since 2014, and the exchange has announced that every county in the state will have more options available in 2016 than they did in 2015.

The addition of more carriers and plans demonstrates how successful Washington’s exchange has been, and the new plans should be beneficial in terms of competition, consumer choice, and rate stabilization.

Average rate increase just 4.2 percent for 2016

On August 27, the Washington Insurance Commissioner announced that 136 plans from 12 health insurers had been approved for sale through Washington Healthplanfinder in 2016. A 13th carrier, Coordinated Care Corporation, had also submitted plans to be offered through the exchange, but those rates were still under review at that point; Coordinated Care’s rates were later finalized, and their plans are available for 2016.

The exchange board also approved all 136 plans to be offered through the exchange, although the last-minute exit of Moda and CUP dropped the total number of carriers to 11 and also reduced the number of plans available. But it’s still up from 10 carriers and 90 plans in 2015, and eight carriers and 46 plans in 2014. In addition, six carriers are offering eight pediatric dental plans through the exchange in 2016.

The average approved rate increase as of late August was 4.2 percent, lower than the 5.4 percent that had been proposed by health insurers earlier in the summer.  Coordinated Care Corporation had requested an average rate increase of 11.2 percent for their 26,000 exchange enrollees, but ultimately the Insurance Commissioner approved a rate increase of 7.2 percent.

The modest rate hike for 2016 comes on the heels of an even smaller average rate increase the year before, when Washington Healthplanfinder’s rates increase by an average of just 1.9 percent for 2015.

For enrollees who shopped around, rates could be lower in 2016 than they were in 2015. A Kaiser Family Foundation study compared benchmark plan (second-lowest-cost silver plan) rates for a 40 year-old in metropolitan areas across the country. In Seattle, the benchmark plan for a 40-year-old was $254 in 2015, and dropped to just $227 in 2016 (the benchmark plan isn’t necessarily from the same carrier that offered it the year before – it’s just the second-lowest-cost silver plan in a given year). That’s more than a 10 percent decrease, and is certainly good news for enrollees who don’t receive subsidies. For those who do receive subsidies, however, average subsidy amounts in Seattle are lower in 2016, since the benchmark plan is less expensive. Thus, it’s particularly important to shop around, as rates can vary considerably from one carrier to another.

Premiums now paid directly to insurers

As of September 24, 2015, insureds pay premiums directly to their carriers; the exchange no longer accepts premium payments.  Paying premiums directly to carriers is the norm in most states, but Washington Healthplanfinder aggregated premiums since its launch in October 2013.  Enrollees have always had the option of paying premiums directly to carriers, but about 80 percent opted to pay premiums to the exchange. The aggregated premium system used in Washington was different from the standard billing method used in most other states, where insureds pay their premiums to the carriers after enrolling through the exchange.

For the most part, the system worked smoothly in Washington, but a technological invoice problem in 2014 impacted roughly 25,000 enrollments (about 15 percent of the total) and resulted in premiums being paid even though the carrier had no record of the enrollee.

By early October 2014, according to the exchange, nearly all of the billing problems had been resolved, but there were still approximately 1,300 customer accounts that continued to have technical issues.  By the time the 2015 open enrollment began in November 2014, the exchange reported that lingering billing problems from 2014 were still affecting about a thousand customers.

But health insurance carriers had a different story to tell.  As of October 30, 2014, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield had 15,000 members whose coverage was in limbo because of billing problems with Washington Healthplanfinder.  And the Association of Washington Healthcare Plans estimated that the problems were still impacting about 25,000 insureds state-wide at the end of October.

Because of the billing problems that have plagued the exchange, the board voted 4-3 in mid-December 2014 to remove the exchange from the invoicing/payment collections part of the process, and turn it over to the insurance carriers, the way it’s done in most other states.  There was much debate on whether that was the best course of action or not, but ultimately it was decided that carriers would take over the billing process in the fall of 2015, in time for the 2016 open enrollment period (this change was effective September 24, 2015).

New leadership

In early August 2015, Richard Onizuka announced that he would be stepping down as CEO of Washington Healthplanfinder as of August 31. Onizuka had led the exchange since 2012. Pam MacEwan, who has been Chief of Staff at the exchange since 2012, is now the interim CEO while the exchange looks for a permanent CEO – a search that is scheduled to begin after the 2016 open enrollment period comes to an end.

And on September 1, Washington Healthplanfinder appointed an interim CFO – Carole Holland – who is taking over the spot vacated by Bob Nakahara.

Small business coverage

Washington Healthplanfinder Business, the state-run SHOP exchange, reported in June that more than 100 small businesses had enrolled in small group plans for 2015.  They also announced that they would make coverage available for businesses with up to 100 employees starting in November. But that changed in October when President Obama signed HR1624 (the PACE Act) into law. The law repealed the ACA provision that would have expanded the definition of “small group” to include businesses with up to 100 employees. States are free to independently define small groups as businesses with up to 100 employees, but in Washington, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler announced that the state would go along with the PACE Act and continue to define small group plans as those with up to 50 employees.

UnitedHealthcare is offering small group plans statewide through Washington Healthplanfinder Business in 2016, and Kaiser offers plans in Clark and Cowlitz counties (Moda had planned to offer small business plans state-wide as well, but their last-minute exit from the Washington market means there’s just one state-wide SHOP option in 2016).

Lawmakers reach agreement on exchange funding

Washington Senate Bill 6089 was signed into law by Governor Inslee on July 6 – but the final version was much different from the original bill.  Introduced by Senator Andy Hill (R – 45th District), the legislation was originally designed to significantly cut funding for the exchange.  Not only would it have reduced funding for the exchange in the state budget, it would have also prohibited the exchange from receiving any of the state taxes collected on health insurance plans (currently 2 percent of premiums, and that money would have been sent to the state general fund instead of to the exchange), and it would have barred the exchange from getting reimbursement for outreach activities, even if federal funds were available to reimburse exchanges.

But the original bill faced significant push back from the exchange, insurance carriers, and Democrats in the legislature, and it didn’t advance in the House (it passed the Senate on a party line vote, but Democrats have a slight majority (51 – 47) in the House of Representatives).  Instead, a rewritten version is much less harsh for the exchange’s funding, but still requires the exchange to actively work to lower costs.

On June 29, lawmakers in Washington reached an agreement on the state’s fiscal year 2016 budget – just in time, as the fiscal year started on July 1.  The budget includes $110 million for Washington Healthplanfinder.  That’s less than the $127 million the exchange had requested, but the exchange has said the money will be “sufficient.”  It does appear that it will require them to run a very tight ship though, with few improvements or upgrades in the near future, and possible reductions in call center staffing.

The money allocated for the exchange comes from state general funds ($11 million) and federal funds ($40 million), along with $58 million from the Washington Health Benefit Exchange Account.  That account is funded by the 2 percent premium tax described above, as well as a per member per month carrier assessment.  The assessment is currently $4.19 per member per month, but it will need to increase to an estimated $9.78 per member per month in order to generate sufficient revenue.

2015 enrollment

Open enrollment for 2015 ended in February, although an extension was added for people who weren’t aware that they would fact a tax penalty for not having coverage. But you can still purchase coverage for the remainder of 2015 if you experience a qualifying event.

Total enrollment through Washington Healthplanfinder amounted to nearly a million people by the end of open enrollment, including 818,697 Medicaid enrollments.

On April 22, Washington Healthplanfinder announced that total private plan enrollment for 2015 had reached 170,101 people.  This is the third-highest total (behind California and New York) of any of the state-run exchanges.  All of these enrollees had paid for their coverage; Washington only reports enrollments if they’re paid up.  In most states, the paid enrollment number is about 88 percent of the total plan selections, so it’s likely that there were several thousand additional enrollments that were finalized but hadn’t yet been paid for at that point.  Washington’s approach totally eliminates critics’ “how many have paid?!” concerns.

By the end of June, effectuated enrollment in private plans through Washington Healthplanfinder had grown to 170,171.  That’s about the same as the number of people (170,179) who have individual coverage in Washington outside the exchange.

Of the total private plan enrollments, more than 16,000 had enrolled during the spring special enrollment period that Washington Healthplanfinder offered for people who weren’t able to finish their enrollment by February 15, as well as people who were unaware prior to filing their taxes that the ACA includes a penalty for being uninsured.  The special enrollment period ran from February 17 to April 17 in order to cover the whole tax filing season.

In October 2015, Washington Healthplanfinder released updated numbers indicating that current effectuated enrollment had dropped to 152,517 people,79 percent of whom are receiving premium subsidies that average $204 per month. Washington Healthplanfinder also reported that they had facilitated Apple Health (Medicaid) enrollments for 1.4 million people in the two years since the exchange opened for business in October 2013.

75 percent of 2014 enrollees renewed for 2015

On December 31, 2014, total private plan enrollment had stood at 107,071.  Of those enrollees, 27,753 were new to the exchange for 2015.  The rest had a plan in 2014 and either renewed it or selected a different exchange plan for 2015.

That means about 60 percent of Washington Healthplanfinder’s 130,000 enrollees from 2014 had returned to the exchange to manually renew or make changes to their existing coverage before the end of December.  Richard Onizuka, the exchange director, noted in December that while many of those who had not returned to the exchange had unpaid balances on their account, that is “not a barrier to enrollment” for the coming year.  If your coverage lapses during the year because you didn’t pay the premiums, you can still come back during open enrollment and sign up for the coming year (this is a provision of the ACA, and applies in every state).

About 80 percent of Washington Healthplanfinder’s 2014 plans were available again in 2015, and the exchange reported in October that roughly 100,000 of their private plan enrollees would be eligible for automatic renewal. But the exchange encouraged the rest of their 2014 enrollees to log back onto the exchange site or use the call center for assistance in updating financial information and confirming a plan selection for 2015.

The benchmark plan (second-lowest-cost silver plan) decreased in price in most of Washington state for 2015.  Enrollees who kept the benchmark plan from 2014 saw rate increases that ranged from an average of 2 percent to nearly 11 percent, depending on where they live.  But enrollees who shopped around and switched to the new benchmark plan were able to secure significant rate decreases instead.

As of March 26, 2015, nearly 67,000 of Washington Healthplanfinder’s 2015 enrollees were new to the exchange, while the rest already had exchange coverage in 2014.  At that point, total private plan enrollments stood at about 165,000 people, so roughly 98,000 of them were returning customers from 2014 – about 75 percent of the 130,000 enrollees from 2014.

Another 170k enrolled off-exchange in 2015

In addition to the 170,000 people enrolled in exchange plans in Washington for 2015, another 170,000 enrolled in private plans outside the exchange. While those plans were not eligible for premium subsidies, they’re fully compliant with the ACA’s regulations – they cover all of the essential health benefits, are guaranteed issue (no medical underwriting), and have no lifetime or annual limits on coverage.

Improvements for 2015

Washington Healthplanfinder was hard at work in 2014 to ensure that their second open enrollment period would be even more smooth and successful than their first.  The exchange made significant progress on the back-end functionality of the website, improved the transmittal of enrollment and payment data to insurance carriers, and implemented critical code and data fixes to avoid repeats of the isolated – but very frustrating – billing and invoice issues that arose in 2014.  As a result of all the fixes, it was expected that there would be far fewer billing, enrollment, and submission errors during the 2015 open enrollment.

From a consumer interface perspective, Washington Healthplanfinder was more user friendly in year two as well.  They added screen-sharing functionality with customer support, and additional on-screen definitions to help consumers – especially those who are not familiar with how health insurance works – better understand the enrollment process.

They also added new information on the eligibility screen to make it easier to understand eligibility for each member of a household.  This page summarizes the improvements Washington Healthplanfinder has made over the last year.

Consumers also had the option to pay premiums to the exchange using paper checks in 2015, as opposed to 2014 when all payments had to be electronic. Although electronic payments are widely considered to be a convenient method, they can be difficult for low-income residents.

The Washington Healthplanfinder tripled its call center staffing to 500 people during the 2015 open enrollment, and there are also 2,500 brokers in Washington who are certified to help customers enroll in a plan through the exchange.

Washington Healthplanfinder 2014 enrollment

Washington Healthplanfinder announced in September 2014 that 147,888 people were enrolled in private plans through the exchange as of the end of July.  The exchange had enrolled 11,497 people with special enrollment periods triggered by qualifying events since between March 31 and July 31, and remained one of the country’s most successful exchanges.  A quarter of the people who enrolled were in the 25 – 34 “young invincible” age group.

By the end of July, the exchange had disenrolled a total of 24,072 people because of non-payment, loss of eligibility, or voluntary plan terminations, but that’s an attrition rate of just 6.4 percent.  Including Medicaid and private plans, 1,283,670 people were enrolled in plans through Washington Healthplanfinder at the end of July 2014.

As of October, 139,700 people were enrolled in private plans through Washington Healthplanfinder, indicating that their rate of enrollment due to qualifying events had continued at roughly the same pace throughout the summer and fall.

In addition to the private plan enrollments, 909,752 people had enrolled in Medicaid through the Washington exchange by mid-April (nearly half of those people were already enrolled previously, but renewed their Medicaid coverage through the exchange).

Washington Heatlthplanfinder history

Washington was one of the first states to move ahead with a state-run health insurance marketplace as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation creating the state exchange in May 2011. In March 2012 Gregoire signed additional legislation, which further defined how the exchange will be governed and operated.

The Washington Health Care Authority (HCA) helped establish the Washington marketplace. HCA transitioned governing authority to an 11-member board of directors in March 2012. The governor appointed eight voting members and a board chairperson who votes only if needed to break a tie. In addition, the insurance commissioner and the administrator of the Health Care Authority are non-voting members.

In March, 2014, Washington legislators tried to pass a bill that would have created much more transparency in the state’s health insurance industry, providing consumers with data on how much insurers are paying for services in each region of the state.  It had widespread support, but opposition from Premera Blue Cross – the state’s largest insurer – sank the bill and Washington did not join the 11 other states that had all-payer claims databases but 2014. But lawmakers persisted, and in 2015, SB5084 was signed into law, advancing the process of creating an all-payer claims database in Washington state.

The federal government funded the Washington Healthplanfinder in 2014.  In 2015, marketplace operations was funded by the state with $21 million that was previously earmarked for the state’s high-risk insurance pool, and with an additional tax on premiums on plans sold through the exchange.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), about 835,000 Washington residents could potentially use the new marketplace to purchase private plans (nearly 170,000 had done so by mid-2015). The Washington insurance commissioner’s office estimates that 477,400 residents are eligible for subsidies, and state set a target of enrolling 280,000 people in 2014. Obviously it fell short of that amount, but enrollment will continue to grow in the coming years.

No grandmothered plans

Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and Governor Jay Inslee took a strong progressive stance with regards to consumer protections:  existing plans that did not meet ACA standards were cancelled at the end of 2013 and needed to be replaced on January 1 with new, ACA-compliant policies.  Following President Obama’s announcement that carriers could extend existing plans into 2014 if states allowed it, Kreidler and Inslee were quick to declare that Washington would not allow non-compliant plans to continue into 2014.

Contact the Washington exchange

Washington Healthplanfinder
Phone number: 855-923-4633

More Washington State health insurance exchange links

Washington Health Benefit Exchange
Information about marketplace planning and development

State Exchange Profile: Washington
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation overview of Washington’s progress toward creating a state health insurance exchange.