Many visit health exchange; number of sign-ups unclear

Consumers just beginning to get answers on policies

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SEATTLE -- Officials couldn't say Friday how many of the state's 1 million uninsured people had signed up for health insurance in the first four days Washington's new health care website was in operation.

They did know the website had 180,000 total visits, by 43,629 unique visitors. More than 28,000 accounts were set up, which means people filled out forms with their personal information but didn't necessarily finish their application or sign up for insurance.

Bethany Frey, spokeswoman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, said they won't have accurate numbers of how many people actually signed up for insurance until Monday, in part because so many couldn't get online and filled out paper applications.

"Anything I gave you would be wildly inaccurate," she said, after talking to the system's data-crunchers.

Operators at the call center, who were also writing down some information on paper, took more than 20,000 calls since the program launched on Tuesday. Those who went to community centers and other places to get in-person assistance also had their information taken on paper first.

Many Washington residents who tried an online application on their own turned to the call center for help when they ran into problems, either because of glitches on the website or because they didn't understand something.

The Washington Health Benefit Exchange reported average call center wait times of 14 minutes in the first week. Some customers said they waited much longer and others reported the phone system hung up on them after a recorded announcement about unusually heavy call volumes.

Joel DeJong, who runs a small health-related business in Seattle, said he stayed on hold for about an hour before hanging up.

DeJong, 37, whose family of five is uninsured, said he tried the website first and returned to it every day until computer problems wore him down. He finally gave up Friday after he couldn't convince wahealthplanfinder.org that his wife and three kids were all American citizens.

He tried to sign up as soon as the new health care program went online Tuesday because he was so excited about the idea of getting insurance for the first time in a year.

DeJong used to pay $1,000 a month for his healthy family to be insured, but they decided it wasn't worth it.

He was excited about the new health care law and can't wait to get his family signed up.

"I feel like I'm pretty tech-savvy," said DeJong, who has applied for jobs and even bought insurance online. "I can't get through this website without talking to somebody.

His next step will be visiting one of the community centers offering help and getting someone else to navigate the system for him.

Some people did get through the application process to review their choices, but some of them chose not to buy insurance through the exchange for other reasons.

Astrid Rial of Tacoma said she and her husband will stick with the family insurance they buy through the Association of Washington Business, after seeing the prices on the new state exchange.

"I was hoping to get better coverage for my money," Rial said. "What I found was sticker shock."

Rial and her husband, who run a small consulting and training business and have one child at home, do not qualify for a federal subsidy. They currently pay $777 a month for insurance. The least expensive plan they found on the exchange was $783 for a lot less coverage than they have now. The most expensive plan was $1,536.

She said her current plan is pretty basic: "I call our plan the coal plan." That's her riff off the new federal guidelines that label plans as silver, gold, etc. But even her own health insurance company, Premera, seemed to be more expensive through the state exchange, Rial said.

"I was hoping that the Affordable Care Act would provide better coverage for the same monthly premium or maybe even lower my monthly premium," she said.

The plan for the future for Rial and her husband, who are both 51: Stay on their current plan unless something changes and they need more health insurance.

Washington residents have six months to buy health insurance through the new exchange during the first enrollment period ending in March.

The state estimates about 1 million Washington state residents, or about one in seven people, do not have health insurance.

The state hopes to enroll 130,000 people for health insurance in 2014 and another 280,000 in 2015. Another 325,000 people will be eligible to sign up for free insurance through Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, people who don't have insurance in 2014 will pay a fine when they file their federal income taxes in early 2015. The annual fines are scheduled to increase over time.