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Washington state health exchange signs up 170,000 for private insurance, still below goal

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SEATTLE — About 170,000 Washington residents bought insurance through the state health care exchange during open enrollment that ended last week, officials reported Wednesday.

That's about 40,000 more people than bought insurance during the first year the exchange was open, but it's still about 40,000 fewer than the goal state officials set this year for Washington Healthplanfinder.

About 16,000 people signed up for private insurance during the two-month extension of open enrollment that ended Friday.

About 97,000 people renewed their insurance during open enrollment and the extension, which means many of the 130,000 who bought insurance last year didn't renew.

Exchange spokesman Michael Marchand said officials were still examining the numbers. But he had a long list of reasons why they failed to meet their enrollment goals of full renewals and 85,000 new customers.

He said more people secured free insurance through Medicaid than expected, more got jobs with health benefits, and more bought insurance through the open market.

Medicaid numbers were well above the goals set by the state, with 534.000 adults now getting Medicaid through Washington Apple Health. That program allows year-round enrollment.

The office of the state insurance commissioner estimated 170,000 people bought private insurance outside the state marketplace during the open enrollment period. That's about the same as last year.

A Gallup poll found Washington's uninsured rate had dropped to 10 percent by December 2014.

State officials estimated nearly 1 million people in Washington state did not have insurance before the state expanded Medicaid eligibility and opened the health exchange under the rules of the Affordable Care Act in fall 2013.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said his office estimates the number of uninsured in the state has dropped to about 8.6 percent of its 7 million residents.

"Real progress is being made here," Kreidler said, but added, "There's a lot of people out there who still don't have insurance."

The next step will be gathering more information from people who are still uninsured and figuring out how to reach the rest, Marchand said.

"The end goal for us is to reduce the un-insurance rate as much as we possibly can," Marchand said.

Kreidler said the exchange still needs to do a better job of explaining why people should buy insurance through the exchange, offer the best product possible, including adult dental insurance, and improve customer service.

Marchand said his main disappointment with the exchange to date is that it still isn't offering the level of customer service people in Washington should be getting. "I'm disappointed that we haven't been able to improve as quickly as I would like to," Marchand added.

Many hope a recent decision by the exchange board to step out of the role of a middleman and have people pay their insurance companies directly will eliminate many of the problems the exchange has had since it opened.

In February, 13,000 customers of the exchange had an incorrect amount taken out of their bank accounts to pay their insurance premiums. Last year, 24,000 accounts reported billing problems, some of which prevented people from using the insurance they had purchased.

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