Despite the battle over its future that prompted the federal government shutdown, the Affordable Healthcare Act exchanges opened two weeks ago and efforts are under way in King County to register the nearly 30 percent of county residents who are presently uninsured.
“Here in King County we’re looking at over 180,000 currently uninsured individuals who are going to have access to coverage because of the changes,” said Jennifer DeYoung, health reform policy analyst for Public Health – Seattle and King County.
The county is making a push this month to contact those eligible for the new exchanges to help them sign up for the program and Maria Wood, Board of Health administrator, was at the Renton City Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting Monday.
Under the new law, commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” most individuals will be required by law to have health coverage beginning Jan. 1. To help meet that requirement, the state of Washington has rolled out two new coverage options.
First, Medicaid coverage, formerly known as Apple Health, will be expanded to individuals with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty line, or $15,864 for an individual or $26,952 for a family of three.
In addition, the state has launched its Health Benefit Exchange with subsidized premiums and tax credits available for individuals with incomes from 139 percent to 400 percent of the poverty line, or up to $45,960 for an individual and $78,120 for a family of three.
Residents with private insurance, seniors on Medicare and those presently on Medicaid or the Apple Health system do not need to make any changes.
Residents who choose to opt out of carrying health insurance will be required to pay a penalty of either 1 percent of their income or $95 in 2014, increasing to 2.5 percent and $695 in 2015.
DeYoung said the county is partnering with community organizations and leaders in an attempt to reach the county’s diverse populations that do not speak English and may not know about the program or how to sign up.
So far, a partner network of 23 organizations speaking 34 languages has been created.
“Not being able to read a piece of paper is not a barrier,” DeYoung said.
More than 500 “in-person assisters” have been trained so far to help sign people up for the healthcare exchanges. In addition to the online signups, the county is hosting more than 200 live events that will feature in-person walk-throughs and aid, including several in Renton.
The idea is for the assisters to explain what it means to have health insurance, the benefits available to individuals and then walk them through the application process.
DeYoung said while it is true the program’s website experienced difficulties during the first week of sign-ups, there are paper forms available and the glitches had no effect on the in-person events.
“It didn’t stop us from getting anyone enrolled,” she said.
DeYoung also said the county is hoping that leaders within the non-English speaking communities of King County will become “carriers of the message” and help spread the word about the exchanges and the value of having health insurance.
Those on the front lines of healthcare say this is an important step.
“Too many people in our area are living without health insurance, which puts their health and their finances at serious risk,” Rich Roodman, CEO of Valley Medical Center, said in a press release.
“We have been working in the community to help raise people’s awareness of the new coverage options, and we’ve also been working with staff to help hospital visitors get more information and get enrolled,” he said.
DeYoung said the goal is “full enrollment” in health insurance for everyone in the county and said the key demographic to get involved in order to bring down costs are young, healthy people, many of whom do not currently carry health insurance. “This is an opportunity for folks to get healthcare insurance.”
“The main population group this is really going to impact is childless adults,” she said.
Residents must apply by Dec. 15 to be eligible for coverage beginning Jan. 1.