SEATTLE -- Washington residents who have started but not finished their applications for insurance through the state's new health care exchange are getting a deadline reprieve, state officials announced Wednesday.
Anyone who begins an application before the previous deadline of Dec. 23, will get as much help as they need to finish and won't face a real deadline until Jan. 1, said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.
"The most important thing I want people to do is to take the action to get that application started. We can work with them at that point," Marchand said Wednesday.
People who have started an application on the Washington healthplanfinder website, can expect emails and letters and phone calls offering them help to finish their applications.
Cooperative insurance companies made this deadline extension possible, Marchand said.
Those who don't start their application online, in person or on the phone before that date won't be eligible for insurance on Jan. 1, but they will still have until the end of March to get insurance and avoid a federal government fine.
About 32,000 Washington residents have completed their applications for private insurance and made their first payment for insurance that begins on Jan. 1. Another 61,000 have done everything but made the first payment. Thousands more are still in process.
Meanwhile, the federal government has announced a break for Washington small business owners, who will be eligible for tax subsidies even though the state's insurance exchange for small businesses won't open until sometime next year for coverage in 2015.
The state Medicaid office is reassuring new enrollees in the free health insurance for low income people that the government isn't going to go after their families to try to recover health costs after they die. The government does go after estates of deceased Medicaid clients to recover the cost of long-term care.
Computer problems both in Washington state and in the federal government have made it difficult or impossible for some individuals to finish their applications.
Computer glitches are being resolved all the time, however, and Marchand encouraged people to return to their applications and try again.
"The next five days are going to be really busy," Marchand said. "I think we've seen a 16 percent increase in volume just from yesterday to today, which is great."
In addition to enrolling online, Washington residents can sign up for health insurance in person or on the phone.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said there are a few other options for people who want to sign up for insurance in time for Jan. 1 coverage:
--If your insurance company cancelled your plan and offered an alternative, take the alternative with the understanding that you can keep that new plan for a month or two and sign up for something else in January or February.
--Call your insurance company, an agent or a broker and they can help you sign up for insurance. If you are eligible for a government subsidy, the agent or broker will help you get it. The consumer does not pay a fee for this service; insurance companies pay commissions to brokers who bring them business.
Kreidler, who spoke from Washington, D.C., where he was meeting with insurance commissioners from across the nation, said he was less worried than his colleagues from other states, because Washington has a functioning exchange.
Since Oct. 1, more than 150,000 people have entered their information in the exchange and found out they were eligible for free health insurance through Medicaid.
Before health care reform went into effect, an estimated 1 million Washington residents did not have health insurance.
Officials at the exchange were expecting a spike in completed enrollments in December. Their goal is to have 130,000 people buy private insurance in time to have coverage on Jan. 1, but unless they turn around most of the applications begun so far, that goal will not be met.