Washington state health exchange still sees problems as next open enrollment approaches

As Washington's health care exchange prepares for its second open enrollment period, officials were still trying to resolve billing and computer problems involving about 1,300 accounts from the previous round of sign-ups.

Exchange officials began with about 24,000 problem accounts that were detected as people started to use their insurance earlier this year.

"We have made substantial progress," said Brad Finnegan, associate operations director for Washington Healthplanfinder, who said the remaining billing problems should be resolved this week. He does not expect the same problems to pop up during the next round of sign-ups that begin Nov. 15.

Exchange programmers also have fixed a different set of problems that plagued the system during the enrollment period, he said during a briefing last week. He cited hyphenated names as one issue that caused error messages to pop up during enrollment.

Finnegan said a team of people is reviewing every problem reported to the exchange to make sure they have been resolved and encouraged everyone who has not reported their problems to send an email or call the help line.

He promised this fall's process would run more smoothly.

"People should be able to flow through the application process without receiving those error messages they received last year," Finnegan said.

The billing problems involved computer issues and human errors, so the fixes required code changes and one-by-one review of the most tenacious account issues, Finnegan said.

About one in five people who bought insurance through the exchange experienced some kind of billing problem, including not being properly credited for payments or being told by doctors that the insurance company had no record of their coverage.

The exchange's call center continues to get calls for help and frustrated citizens keep posting complaints on the exchange's Facebook page.

In August, the state announced a fix that allowed people who were having billing problems to pay their insurance companies directly.

That enabled them to keep using their insurance, but they had to pay the entire cost of coverage, without the subsidies they were entitled to. The exchange said it would reimburse them later, but some users are still waiting.

Since the federal law allows direct payment, exchange officials are studying the possibility of having everyone pay their insurance companies directly.

Finnegan has said there are advantages for the state to having people pay through the exchange, such as better data collection and an easier process for issuing tax credit reports to consumers.

Finnegan said direct payments would not have eliminated all the billing and computer problems consumers have experienced with the exchange.