Washington health insurance exchange for businesses expands access

Starting this fall, Washington businesses with up to 100 employees can use the state’s health insurance exchange for business.

The decision by the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, announced last week, widens the number of businesses that can use the Washington Healthplanfinder Business. It started in 2014, but didn’t get an insurance carrier that operated statewide until the beginning of this year.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” requires businesses with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance. Smaller businesses were not required to, but could receive tax incentives if they did.

Washington Healthplanfinder Business launched in 2014, but it was very limited. Only one insurance carrier participated and only operated in Clark and Cowlitz counties, spokeswoman Bethany Frey said Monday. At the end of the year, just 14 small businesses had enrolled.

Since January, when an insurance carrier joined that offered statewide plans, enrollment jumped, but numbers are still small. Out of an estimated 200,000 businesses in Washington state with 50 or fewer employees, only about 100 of them have enrolled.

“We never expected this to be an immediate quick growth cycle,” Frey said, adding that thousands of businesses have created accounts but not yet enrolled.

Frey said the number of available plans for small businesses also is growing. United Healthcare has applied to the state’s insurance commissioner to offer plans in the exchange starting this fall, she said, which would double to around 45 the number of plans available on the exchange.