- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - With less than a week remaining in the open enrollment period for health insurance, state officials say the Washington health exchange has already beaten its goal for insurance sign-ups by 25,000 people.

Exchange spokesman Michael Marchand acknowledges a lot of the credit goes to the higher government penalty people will have to pay if they don’t have health insurance this year.

Those fines have increased to the point that not getting insurance could cost as much as a few months of actually paying for health insurance.

Adults who don’t sign up for insurance this year will face penalties of at least $695. Families could be asked to pay more than $2,000 in fines if they don’t buy insurance through the exchange, on the individual market or are covered through a workplace plan.

Washington residents have until Sunday to sign up for insurance that takes effect on March 1. They are not required to buy the insurance through the state exchange, but that is the way to get government discounts for those who qualify.

As of Wednesday, about 190,000 had either signed up for new insurance or renewed last year’s coverage through Washington Healthplanfinder, Marchand said.

The state goal for this open enrollment period was 165,000 and Marchand is betting they will reach 200,000 sign-ups by the end of the week. About 155,000 people signed up during the 2014-15 open enrollment.

“This open enrollment period has been a banner open enrollment,” he said. “We’re really happy.”

Another factor in this year’s enrollment increase was a change in the process that allowed most people to automatically reenroll with the same company. Those who wanted to change their plan could do so online or through a broker, but those who didn’t want to change could just keep paying the same company.

Since insurance companies were also collecting the money this year, people signing up for health insurance seemed to have less trouble signing up.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any problems. People still ran into technical problems on the website, with passwords and software issues. And Washington residents have reported wait times of more than an hour on the exchange telephone help line.

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Ways to get help:

-On the phone: 1-855-923-4633, from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to midnight on Sunday.

-By email: [email protected]

-On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WAHealthplanfinder

-By calling an insurance broker or agent or an in-person navigator. A list of people can be found by zip code using the customer support link on https://wahealthplanfinder.org

-In person help can also be found on the same website under events.

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