Questions on state's new health exchange? Call center to help

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington residents will be able to start the process of buying insurance through the state's health exchange next month, but many likely still have a few questions about their insurance options.

A Spokane-based toll-free customer support line will start taking calls at 1-855-923-4633 starting at 7:30 a.m. PDT Tuesday, and potential customers will have a live person to talk with about plan choices, costs and what kind of subsidies they might be eligible for. The call center, which will be staffed by 80 people, will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The state's open enrollment period for purchasing insurance through the exchange starts Oct. 1 for coverage that takes effect on Jan. 1.

The plans that will be part of the exchange are expected to be voted on this week. After already previously delaying a vote, the board of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange voted again Thursday to delay the final vote until Wednesday, to coincide with a scheduled meeting to consider additional companies that were appealing exclusion by Washington's insurance commissioner.

Six insurance companies have been approved to join the exchange and three others have been rejected because their plans didn't fit all the rules set up by the federal government.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler last month approved plans from Bridgespan, Group Health Cooperative, Premera Blue Cross and LifeWise, a subsidiary of Premera. Community Health Plan of Washington and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest were approved Friday.

Molina Healthcare of Washington Inc. and Coordinated Care Corporation have appealed their rejections.

Moda Health Plan Inc. did not appeal its exclusion from the exchange.

Only insurance companies approved by the upcoming vote will be able to offer individual health insurance through Washington's exchange during the open enrollment period, between Oct. 1 and March 31, 2014. Other companies will have to wait to join next year, during the second open enrollment period, Oct. 15-Dec. 7, 2014.

Michael Marchand, spokesman for the exchange, said that the delay in finalizing insurance plans for Washington will not affect the state's open enrollment period starting next month.

"Everything is falling into place for us to be ready for opening our doors" on that date, he said.

An estimated 1 million Washington residents are uninsured, or about 1 in 7 people who live in the state. Officials don't know the total number who might buy health insurance through the exchange, but the Insurance Commissioner's office expects an estimated 328,000 people in Washington to benefit from the expansion in Medicaid coverage.

Under the plans preliminarily approved by Kreidler and awaiting a final vote by the board, rates vary based on factors like age, home county, smoking habits and choice of plan.

For example, under a basic LifeWise plan that covers essentials with a deductible of nearly $2,000, a 40-year-old non-smoker in King County currently pays $247 a month. Under a LifeWise plan with a similar deductible in the exchange, that would increase slightly to $254 a month, though that person would gain coverage for prescription drugs and maternity care and have limits on their out-of-pocket spending. A 21-year-old non-smoker in King County who currently pays $172 under the same LifeWise plan would see an increase in premium rates to $251 a month under the exchange, though state officials say that person would likely be eligible for federal subsidies, based on their income, to offset some or all of that increase.

Under the federal health care law, annual out-of-pocket costs, including deductibles and copays, are capped at $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family.

Marchand said that the call center is expecting high volumes around the time of the state's Oct. 1 open enrollment period. Overflow calls, and language assistance for non-English speakers will be handled out of a call center in Virginia, he said.

"A lot of people will probably have very basic questions on the cost and coverage, as well as the convenience - 'Can I keep my doctor?'" Marchand said. "It will all be unique to their individual situation."