State scales back start of health insurance exchange

SEATTLE — A new health insurance marketplace being set up in Washington state to help small businesses find insurance for their employees will not be fully operational this fall, as planned.

The Washington Health Benefit Exchange instead will run a pilot project in a few counties for its small business program, starting in October.

The small business insurance exchange will expand across the state in fall 2014 when more insurance companies get involved, said Richard Onizuka, chief executive officer for Washington Healthplanfinder.

The pilot project will only involve Kaiser and the counties that will participate have not yet been named.

Meanwhile, the insurance exchange for individuals will open as planned on Oct. 1. Nine insurance companies have expressed interest in selling 57 different health plans to individuals through the exchange, officials said Thursday.

The Health Benefit Exchange is Washington’s answer to federal health insurance reform. It will allow people to go online to shop for health insurance and see side-by-side comparisons of various plans based on cost, physician networks, coverage and other factors.

A March study by the Society of Actuaries estimated, however, that the new federal health care law would raise medical claims costs in Washington state by an average of 13.7 percent per person. Medical claims costs are main driver of health insurance premiums.

The actuary study estimated President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act would raise claims costs nationally by an average of 32 percent per person in the individual health insurance market by 2017. That’s partly due to sicker people joining the pool.

About 1 million Washington residents are uninsured or one in seven people who live in the state.

Officials do not know the total number who will benefit from an expansion in Medicaid coverage or will buy health insurance through the state’s new exchange.

State officials estimate that by 2017, insurance coverage obtained through Medicaid and the exchange is expected to reduce Washington’s uninsured rate to less than 5 percent.

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Online: Washington Healthplanfinder: http://wahbexchange.org/

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