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Washington health insurance marketplace

4.2% average rate increase, with new carriers & more plans for 2016; premiums to be paid directly to insurers; New interim CEO and CFO

  • By
  • contributor
  • September 7, 2015

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.  The exchange board also approved all 136 plans to be offered through the exchange.  That’s up from 10 carriers and 90 plans this year.  In addition, six carriers will offer eight pediatric dental plans through the exchange in 2016, and five multi-state plans are still under review by the Office of Personnel Management.

The average rate increase is 4.2 percent, lower than the 5.4 percent that had been proposed by health insurers earlier this summer.  A 13th carrier, Coordinated Care Corporation, has also submitted plans to be offered through the exchange, but those rates are still under review.  Given that Coordinated Care isn’t one of the current exchange carriers, its final approved rate won’t impact the average rate change for on-exchange plans.  But at ACAsignups, Charles Gaba noted that if Coordinated Care’s rates are approved as-proposed, it’s possible that the average rate change for the overall market (including off-exchange plans) could end up slightly higher – but still only around 5 percent.

Although the average rate change for Washington will be quite reasonable for 2016, rates will vary considerably from one plan and carrier to another.  So it will be important – as always – for Washington enrollees to shop around during open enrollment, which runs from November 1 to January 31.

Washington Healthplanfinder Business, the state-run SHOP exchange, reported in June that more than 100 small businesses have enrolled in small group plans for this year.  They also announced that they will make coverage available for businesses with up to 100 employees starting in November.  Moda and United will offer small group plans statewide through Washington Healthplanfinder Business in 2016, and Kaiser will offer plans in Clark and Cowlitz counties.

Premiums to be paid directly to insurers

As of September 24, insureds will pay premiums directly to their carriers; the exchange will no longer accept premium payments after September 23.  Paying premiums directly to carriers is the norm in most states, but Washington Healthplanfinder has aggregated premiums since its launch in October 2013.  Enrollees have always had the option of paying premiums directly to carriers, but about 80 percent currently pay premiums to the exchange instead.

New leadership

In early August, 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.

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

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), and twelve for 2016: (Health Alliance Northwest, Regence Blue Shield, and UnitedHealthcare of Washington are new to the exchange for 2016):

  • Bridgespan
  • Columbia United Providers
  • Community Health Plan of Washington
  • Coordinated Care (2016 plans still pending approval)
  • Group Health Cooperative
  • Health Alliance Northwest
  • Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest
  • LifeWise
  • Moda Health Plan Inc.
  • Molina Healthcare of Washington
  • Premera Blue Cross
  • Regence Blue Shield
  • UnitedHealthcare of Washington

Not all carriers offer plans in all areas of the state.  But available options have increased significantly since 2014.  During the first open enrollment period, only two counties in Washington had more than six carriers offering plans through the exchange.  For 2016 coverage, that has grown to 14 counties.

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.

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 (the exact number will be determined this summer, and it will take effect in 2016).

2015 enrollment

Open enrollment for 2015 – including the two-month special enrollment period that was added this spring – has ended in Washington.  In order to purchase individual health insurance (including outside the exchange) for the rest of the year, you’ll need to have 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 have 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.

As of the end of March, 78 percent of Washington Healthplanfinder’s private plan enrollees were receiving premium subsidies.  In 2014, the exchange reported that premium subsidies averaged $390/month per family, and amounted to a total of $334 million across all enrollees for the year.  Because Washington established its own state-run exchange, subsidies there did not hinge on the outcome of the King v. Burwell Supreme Court case (the Court ruled in June that subsidies are legal in every state, including those where HHS is running the exchange. But it wouldn’t have mattered in Washington even if the Court had sided with the plaintiffs; since the state runs its own exchange, subsides were never in question).

75 percent of 2014 enrollees renewed for 2015

On December 31, total 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 from 2014, that is “not a barrier to enrollment in 2015.”  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).

Although automatic renewal was possible through Washington Healthplanfinder, 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.  As of March 26, 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 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 are 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.

Renewing coverage for 2015

For people who already had a plan through Washington Healthplanfinder, automatic renewal was possible – assuming their plan is still available in 2015 – if they checked a box on their initial 2014 application allowing the exchange to verify their subsidy eligibility by checking federal tax data for up to five years.  About 80 percent of the exchange’s 2014 plans are 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.

These consumers received a letter from the exchange letting them know that their plan was being renewed with the applicable subsidy, but they also had the option to switch to a new plan during open enrollment.  In Washington, the deadline to enroll or switch plans was December 23 if you want to have a January 1 effective date (this is later than the deadline in most other states, and the exchange also granted a 60 day special enrollment period to people who started their enrollment or renewal by December 23 but were unable to finish it because of technical difficulties).

Even though automatic renewal was possible for most Washington Healthplanfinder enrollees, it was probably not the best option for most people.  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 last year saw rate increases that range from an average of 2 percent to nearly 11 percent, depending on where they live.  But enrollees who shopped around and switch to the new benchmark plan could see significant rate decreases instead.

2015 rate hike less than 2 percent

Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler announced in September that for plans sold through Washington Healthplanfinder  average premiums would only be increasing by 1.9 percent for 2015.  This represents a significant improvement over the past several years, when premiums in the individual market in Washington increased an average of 8 to 18 percent each year.

In addition to lower-than-normal rate increases, 90 plans are available in 2015 from the ten carriers in the exchange (plan availability varies from one region to another).  That’s nearly double the 46 individual policy options that were available in 2014.

Once open enrollment began on November 15, residents were able to easily compare rates and plans in the site’s plan browsing section.  It takes less than a minute on the exchange’s shopping system to see quotes with estimated subsidies included.

Billing and invoices – problems and solutions

In Washington, enrollees currently pay their premiums directly to Washington Healthplanfinder and the exchange then sends the premiums out to each insurer (although the exchange notes that customers do also have the option of paying premiums directly to insurers, and as noted above, this system will be changing in September 2015, when all premiums will be paid directly to insurers).  The aggregated premium system used in Washington is 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, this has worked smoothly in Washington, but a technological invoice problem impacted roughly 25,000 enrollments (about 15 percent of the total) and has resulted in premiums being paid even though the carrier has 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 mid-November, 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 will take over the billing process in the fall of 2015, in time for the 2016 open enrollment period (this change will be effective September 24, 2015).

But although there have been glitches with private plan enrollment in the exchange, Medicaid enrollment and renewal has been very smooth.  In December, the exchange auto-renewed about 150,000 Medicaid enrollments.  This is an ongoing process, because Medicaid enrollment is year-round and thus renewals come up every month.

An early glitch, quickly resolved

Officials at Washington Healthplanfinder learned in 2014 that enrollment errors are difficult to fix once the enrollment is finalized.  So when they discovered that the exchange had a slight error in calculating tax credits in the early hours of 2015 open enrollment, they made the decision to shut down the exchange temporarily while they sorted out the issue, viewing this as preferable to letting people continue to enroll with incorrect premium subsidies.

The error was a result of the system still using data from the first open enrollment, instead of updated numbers.  Poverty level tables from 2013 were used for people enrolling in 2014 plans, but now that we’re enrolling for 2015, it’s the 2014 poverty level tables that are being used.  And the applicable percentage of income that you have to pay for the second-lowest-cost silver plan has been updated for 2015 as well.

About 150 enrollees had finished their application and scheduled premium payments based on the incorrect subsidy amounts before the glitch was noticed, and Washington Healthplanfinder reached out to all of them to fix the problem.  The exchange shut down within hours of opening on November 15, but was back up and running by the next morning and has been functional ever since.

Improvements for 2015

Open enrollment for 2015 started on November 15.  It ran for just three months this time, ending on February 15, and Washington Healthplanfinder CEO Richard Onizuka reminded Washington residents to enroll early rather than waiting until the last minute.

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 is more user friendly this year too.  They’ve 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’ve 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 have 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 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 on September 5 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 remains 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.

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).

Also by June 1, another 171,286 people had enrolled in private individual plans outside of the exchange in Washington, making the off-exchange market in Washington even more robust than the exchange market (off-exchange plans are all ACA-compliant, but there are no subsidies available to offset the premiums and cost-sharing for off-exchange plans).

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 in 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 have all-payer claims databases.

The federal government is funding the Washington Healthplanfinder in 2014.  In 2015, marketplace operations will be funded by the state with $21 million that was previously earmarked for the state’s high-risk insurance pool, which will be operated through the exchange, and with a 2 percent 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 will qualify 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.

Healthplanfinder Business (SHOP)

The Washington exchange for small businesses is offering 47 plans from three carriers in 2016:

  • Moda Health Plan is available state-wide.
  • UnitedHealthcare is also available state-wide, and is new to the exchange for 2016.
  • Kaiser Permanent is available in Clark and Cowlitz counties, where it has offered small group plans since 2014.

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.