Here’s what Obamacare looks like when it works

October 8, 2013

Washington Health Plan Finder had one of the most troubled launches of any health marketplace, even more so than the glitch-plagued federal exchange.

When HealthCare.Gov launched, shoppers could at least access the homepage. But in the Evergreen State, the entire marketplace site was down. If you tried to visit the site Oct. 1, you got internal server error messages.

This makes it all the more surprising that, six days later, Washington is now posting some of the highest enrollment numbers in the country. The state has had nearly 9,452 people sign up for coverage since Oct. 1. The enrollments have largely been in the Medicaid program, however, with 916 people buying private insurance.

There are an additional 10,497 people who have submitted applications for health coverage through the marketplace but are not actually enrolled, meaning they have yet to pay their first month's premium. All told, that's about 20,000 people who have taken a step toward signing up for coverage in Washington. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the 960,000 people there without insurance — but we are only seven days into a six-month open enrollment period.

When you play around with the site, it's easy to see why Washington has some of the best enrollment numbers: It's pretty easy to use.

One big difference from the federal marketplace is that you don't need to fill out an application to browse prices. This screen right here is literally all the information you need to put in to browse prices.

This likely helps alleviate one of the big problems that the federal marketplace is having right now: a bottleneck when people try to create accounts. Some states, such as Kentucky and Connecticut, have structured their sites similarly with a browsing option. Others, like Maryland and the federal government, require registration beforehand. The sites that allow browsing have, so far, typically seen higher enrollment than those that require you to log in first.

I played around with the this part of the site this morning, running through a hypothetical situation where I moved back to my parents' house outside Seattle (don't worry mom and dad, this isn't real!) and work at a nearby coffee shop (this is Washington, right?). A few moments later, I had my options (I decided to shop without a premium subsidy, to get a sense of the full prices).

Whether these are affordable is a question for the actual insurance shopper. They will have to decide whether a premium between $157 and $345 (the prices listed on the left-hand side) fits into their budget. If I do put in an income — I used $20,000 — the marketplace spits back prices that factor in a tax subsidy from the federal government.

Actually applying for insurance takes a bit longer, but it is by no means a marathon process. It took me about 10 minutes to fill out information that the government would need to figure out what government assistance I qualify for. I couldn't complete the application because, much to my parents' relief, I am employed in the other Washington and not moving back home.

That's pretty much it. The pages do take a few second to flick between; its definitely not as instantaneous as browsing a news site. But if you were really set on doing the fastest possible registration in Washington, you could probably pull it off in 15 to 20 minutes.

This isn't what Obamacare looks like in the federal marketplace, where it's still difficult to even create an account or browse options. It is what it looks like when Obamacare works.

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Brad Plumer · October 8, 2013