Push is on to insure this month

State exchange has help out to enroll by March 31 deadline

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Washington Healthplanfinder is making its final push to get people signed up for health plans before the open enrollment period ends this month.

Those without health insurance have until March 31 to complete an application, select a health plan and pay their first month's premium for plans both inside and outside of the state-based insurance exchange, Washington Healthplanfinder. Plans purchased within the exchange are eligible for federal tax credits.

After March 31, only people with qualifying life events — such as marriage, divorce, having a baby, no longer qualifying for a parent's health insurance or moving to a new state — will be eligible to enroll in a health plan. Otherwise, open enrollment won't begin again until this fall.

Those who aren't enrolled in a plan by March 31 will face a penalty under the Affordable Care Act.

"The big thing we're trying to get out right now is, not to wait until the last minute," said Bethany Frey, spokeswoman for the exchange.

Exchange officials expect a surge of people trying to enroll in the final days of the month. That will also likely lead to a surge in requests for in-person aides and brokers and a higher call volume for the exchange's call center, Frey said.

The call center has up to 600 customer support representatives, but the average wait time for callers is still about 50 minutes, Frey said. That wait time may increase later in the month as the deadline approaches.

"But people in the wait queues can get help, and

that's the important thing," Frey said.

Exchange officials encourage people to enroll online and avoid paper applications, which can take longer to process, Frey said. People who have questions can contact insurance brokers or local organizations with in-person aides for help, she said.

In-person aides offer one-on-one support for people trying to navigate the exchange and enroll in plans. For a list of local organizations with aides, visit the Clark County Public Health website, http://clark.wa.gov/public-health/insurance/enrollment.html.

Insurance brokers can help people sort through their options, offer advice and recommend plans. There is no charge for brokers' services; they're compensated by the health insurance companies, Frey said.

To find a broker, visit the exchange website, http://wahealthplanfinder.org, and click on the "customer support" link in the upper right corner. From there, you can search for a broker by name or ZIP code.

For help via telephone, contact the exchange call center at 855-WAFINDER (855-923-4633).

Those who complete their plan enrollment — including paying the first premium — by 5 p.m. March 23 will have coverage effective April 1. Those who enroll in the final week of the month will have coverage beginning May 1.

Medicaid, the health program for low-income residents, is open for enrollment year-round on wahealthplanfinder.org.