- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - As the nation enters the third year of coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law, officials in Washington state say there are still hundreds of thousands of people who could be getting free or low-cost insurance.

But they won’t get that discount if they don’t go online and check out Washington Healthplanfinder.

Starting Sunday, they can enroll online for health insurance for next year. Starting Monday, they can get in-person help signing up for health insurance at a community center, health clinic or from another nonprofit group.

State officials estimate more than 100,000 people in Washington are eligible for free health insurance through Washington’s version of Medicaid, Apple Health, but haven’t signed up.

As many as 35,000 people have signed up for health insurance outside the state exchange and may not know they would save money with a federal tax credit if they enrolled through Washington Healthplanfinder.

An estimated 250,000 other state residents do not have health insurance either through work or as an individual and may qualify for a tax credit through the exchange.

“We know they’re going to be extremely hard to reach. They’ve already taken a pass for two years. They made this decision, many times, after already checking out their options,” said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Everyone who doesn’t have health insurance in 2016 -either through work or on their own - will face a bigger fine for failing to obey the rules of the Affordable Care Act. The fine goes up to $685 a year or 2.5 percent of annual income - whichever is greater - for each person.

Officials will be targeting black and Hispanic Washingtonians, as well as people in the 18-to-34-year-old range, with its outreach efforts. The goal for this year is modest growth in enrollment of about 3 to 5 percent.

But the exchange won’t just be seeking new customers. They need get as many of the 170,000 people who bought health insurance on the exchange this past year to renew their coverage for 2016.

The renewal system is a little different this year, since in September insurance companies took over billing from the exchange. Insurance companies will contact customers about renewing and people can make a choice to stay with the same insurance and never have to visit the online exchange. Or they can go online during the open enrollment period, which runs through Jan. 31, and shop around for a better deal.

Direct payment of insurance premiums should eliminate the biggest health insurance problem from this past year. Payments from thousands of people got lost somewhere between the exchange and the insurance companies.

More than 130 different health plans from 12 insurance companies are being offered on the exchange for 2016, compared to 90 plans from 10 insurers in 2015. Health insurance rates on the exchange have gone up an average 4.2 percent, which is less than the national average increase of more than 6 percent.

People who aren’t sure if they qualify for a tax credit can sign in on the website to find out. In general, the cutoff for tax credits is an income of nearly $50,000 a year for individuals and just under $100,000 for a family of four, but the cutoffs are also influenced by other factors including age.

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On the Web

www.wahealthplanfinder.org :

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