Washington state making health exchange work

Maria L. La Ganga / Los Angeles Times /


KENT, Wash. — Mindy Mansfield had health insurance when she worked at a factory that made air flow vents in Cle Elum, a small town in central Washington state. It covered the pills she took for her Type 2 diabetes and the ones she needed to ease her arthritis.

But as she edged toward retirement age after nearly two decades as a machine operator, Mansfield was laid off. She moved in with her older sister in Kent, lost her medical coverage and jettisoned her arthritis medication because “it was just too expensive.”

Two years of worry about whether she could stay healthy without a safety net were erased in just 20 minutes last weekend — the time it took the 62-year-old to navigate Washington’s online insurance exchange with a little help from “in-person assister” Pearl Rodriguez.

Mansfield was one of 100 uninsured women and men who flocked to an aging community center here on a drizzly afternoon and signed up for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, as Obamacare is formally known. They were part of the Washington Healthplanfinder’s “mobile enrollment tour.”

More than 55,000 people in Washington state enrolled in health coverage in October — most in Medicaid — and around 40,000 more applied for coverage, making the Evergreen State one of the brightest success stories in the rocky national rollout of the federal health law. Here in the home of online shopping giant Amazon.com, officials credit the exchange’s success in part to the Pacific Northwest’s high-tech bent.

Colorado enrolled just more than 37,500 in the period. New York state — with a population nearly three times the size of Washington’s — had enrolled just over 48,000 in health plans as of Tuesday, state officials announced. Kentucky enrolled more than 32,000 in its first month.

All are among the states that embraced Obamacare and crafted their own insurance exchanges rather than rely on the federal site, which has been riddled with breakdowns.

In addition to the enrollment tour, which brought a long, white trailer filled with workstations, laptops and enrollment assisters to cities throughout the state, Washington Healthplanfinder has wooed young and healthy residents with android and iPhone apps and an appearance at the University of Washington by Seattle’s own Chris Walla, guitarist with Death Cab for Cutie.