Diverse group in state health care exchange

By Donna Gordon Blankinship

Associated Press

SEATTLE — Early sign-ups on Washington’s health care exchange include both young and old, according to data released Friday by state officials.

The Washington residents who signed up for health insurance during October come from across the state and are also economically diverse. Most applications have come from one-person households and about 22.6 percent of the enrollees buying private plans were in the 18-to-34-year-old category. More than half are between the ages of 45 and 64, about 19 percent were 35-44 and the rest are younger than 18.

“Young adults are a critical target for us and it is great to see that 6,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have signed up for health coverage in just the first month,” said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Only 328 in that age range signed up for private policies. The rest will get free insurance through Medicaid.

Marchand said the state will continue to target young adults with some help from local musicians, at concert venues and through mobile advertising.

Officials from California say most of those who have applied in the state with the largest uninsured population are older people with health problems.

In Ohio, groups helping people enroll describe the people coming to them as mostly older residents who lost their jobs during the recession.

In Washington in the first month after health care reform launched Oct. 1, about 57,730 insurance sign-ups were completed.

Most of those were for the free insurance offered for low income individuals through Medicaid. But a quarter of the other participants signed up for insurance and paid full price because they did not qualify for a government subsidy.

State officials predict those numbers are about to take a giant leap, with another 72,136 applications somewhere in the process and 21,671 who have chosen a plan but still need to pay.

“Those numbers are growing every day,” Marchand said.

He thinks the Washington exchange could meet its goal of 130,000 people buying private insurance in time to have coverage Jan. 1. People have until mid-December to send in a check or pay online for insurance that begins in January.

Officials at the exchange are expecting a spike in completed enrollments in December.

Marchand noted people can complete their enrollments any time by saying how they want to pay but they don’t have to turn over the money right away. The website will allows them to choose when they want to transfer the money.

A spokesman from the company that dominates Washington’s private insurance market for individuals and families said it was too early to say if the enrollment numbers will meet their expectations for diversity in insurance buyers.

“It’s probably way too early to draw any firm conclusions six weeks into an enrollment period that lasts six months,” said Eric Earling, spokesman for Premera Blue Cross, which sells individual health insurance under the brand name LifeWise.

Earling said there are a lot of factors that will help them determine if health care reform is a success in this state, including the overall health of people who buy insurance through the exchange as well as the age and health of those who buy private insurance directly from insurance companies or through brokers.

About half of his company’s 100,000 family and individual customers will not qualify for subsidies, Earling said, so they expect many will buy their new policies outside the exchange.

Another reason it’s too early to tell if the demographics are going to work out financially for Premera and the rest of the insurance market: “Our expectation was people who signed up early were people who needed the coverage,” Earling said.

The insurance pool is expected to change over time, he added.

The geographic diversity of sign-ups mirrors population distribution across the state. For example, one quarter of signups so far are in King County, followed by about 11 percent in Pierce County and more than 10 percent in Spokane County.

Every county had some sign-ups, although some have pretty small numbers, such as 13 in Garfield County and 38 in Columbia.

Looking at just the private insurance enrollments, 37 percent were in the 55-64 age group, nearly 20 percent were in the 45-54 age group, 19 percent came from the 35-44 age group, nearly 18 percent came from the 26-34 group and about 5 percent came from the 18-25 group.

The numbers were spread out more evenly among Medicaid enrollments, with the biggest segments for free insurance in the under-18 and 26-34 group.

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