State health insurance marketplace open for small businesses

Enrollment for Washington Healthplan Finder Business, formerly called SHOP, started Friday, Oct. 17. The state’s healthcare exchange allows businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees to enroll their employees in group insurance plans.

The state’s health exchange for small businesses officially started last year, but it only had one provider, Kaiser Healthplan of the Northwest, that only covered Cowlitz and Clark Counties. For 2015, Moda Health will offer health plans for small businesses across the state and Kaiser will continue to operate in Clark and Cowlitz Counties.

Participation is optional for businesses with less than 50 employees, as the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate only applies to businesses with 50 or more full-time employees.

Keith Wallace, Bellingham insurance broker and benefit manager Rice Insurance is a spokesperson for Washington Healthplanfinder Business and a member of the Washington Health Benefits Exchange Advisory Committee. He said it’s too early to tell, but he expects the program will be popular with small businesses in Whatcom County and throughout the state.

BBJ: How do businesses benefit by signing up for insurance using Washington Healthplanfinder Business?

Wallace: It’s the only place that you can get the small business tax credit. Prior to 2015 you could just go through the process of applying for the tax program and you could get that small business tax credit based on criteria, but now they’ve actually made it so the exchange is the only outlet for getting the tax credit.

In years previous it was a rather cumbersome process to achieve the tax credit and the feedback that we got from accountants was that the return on your investment for achieving those credits wasn’t always valuable.

BBJ: Do you think the enrollment process will be worth the tax credit?

Wallace: Yeah. The past enrollment process may not have been, but everybody had to do it on their own. They had to figure out how to do it through their accountant. And what Washington Healthplanfinder Business is trying to do is to create a simpler conduit to get that tax credit. So I don’t think achieving the tax credit is going to be as difficult moving forward because the program is going to help streamline the process.

BBJ: How much demand do you expect  for Washington Healthplanfinder Business?

Wallace: Last year, when the program was just available in two counties, more than 4,000 businesses created online accounts to see if they would be eligible. So it’s very likely that it is going to be in very high demand.

When I was talking with the program’s senior communications specialist last week, she mentioned that because of the expected demand they’re not going to do a huge advertising rollout. You’re not going to see ads on TV about it because they didn’t want everyone to sign up on the first week  and crash the system.

BBJ: When the website for individual plans opened last year, it had some glitches. Could that happen with Washington Healthplanfinder Business?

Wallace: They have been doing live testing for the last three months. They originally anticipated having 100 customer service reps at the call center—they’re going to have 500. So while they won’t promise it to be perfect, they do feel like they’ve worked out a lot of the glitches.

BBJ: What improvements could be made to Washington Healthplanfinder Business?

Wallace: The problem right now is there’s only one carrier for most of the counties in the state.  For the program to actually be viable and head into a growth mode, they’re going to need to get more carriers so there’s some competition and choice.

BBJ: Which businesses do you think will be most interested in the exchange, businesses with current plans or businesses that will be getting coverage for the first time?

Wallace: I anticipate that it’s going to be mostly companies who already have plans, but I do think that it will draw some companies into the marketplace. We get calls or emails from small employers every week who say they’re ready to buy health insurance for their employees. Often times when they say they’re ready it’s because they’re financially ready. If they can become financially ready more quickly as a result of competitive rates and/or tax credits, I think that’s going to drive more companies into the market.

BBJ: Starting in 2016, businesses with 50 to 100 employees will be able to get coverage using Washington Healthplanfinder Business. Will that have a big impact on the marketplace?

Wallace: I think it’s going to be a pretty significant change to the market place. There are a lot of businesses in that range and carriers are putting a lot of time and money into that area.

BBJ: What do you recommend for businesses?

Wallace: I think everybody should call their broker or contact the exchange people and see how it looks. There’s no reason to wait in my opinion.



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