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The Washington Health Benefit Exchange is trying to figure out how to operate on a much slimmer budget next year. That's when the exchange will transition from federal grants to state money, losing more than two-thirds of its budget.

Administrators of the Washington health benefit exchange always knew this day would come. The federal grants of $130 million it had for 2014, will shrink to just $40 million from state funds in 2015.

The idea was to allocate the $40 million from proceeds of a 2 percent tax on plans sold on the marketplace.

Obviously it's going to force us to make a lot of critical decisions related to how we prioritize what we do here, said Michael Marchand, spokesperson for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Fortunately, the biggest costs incurred were for the initial setup of the exchange itself.

A lot of the costs of building the exchange and operating are front-loaded to that extent, but then the other thing will be is ongoing operation, said Marchand. I think the hard thing for us is we don't know what normal is. We haven't had, I would say, normal operating time.

Marchand says what will not be cut are critical IT operations to keep the website stable and running smoothly. The launch was riddled with technical glitches which the state is still working to resolve. But in the new budget, software upgrades could be sacrificed.

To get people to enroll, the exchange relied heavily on TV and other media for outreach. Next year advertising could be cut, even though the exchange has yet to meet its enrollment goals.

What is also difficult to predict is the future needs at the call center. The exchange ramped up staffing numbers to 600 operators during a swamped open enrollment.

After open enrollment there will be a significant drop off in calls, said Marchand.

The question is, will the exchange sell enough health plans to sustain itself. 2015 will be the year to see if it can happen.

The exchange still defends its decision to give its CEO a 13 percent raise last year, because his compensation was well below other states including Oregon and Idaho.



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