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Originally published October 4, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Page modified October 5, 2013 at 9:07 AM

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Now’s a good time to visit Benefit site

Insuring Health| Now that the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, the public-private company that manages the health-insurance exchange, has fixed the system and the site is running smoothly, it’s a good time to take a tour.

Special to The Seattle Times

Healthplanfinder by the numbers

As of 2:30 p.m. on Friday, the exchange reports the following consumer traffic.

• Unique site visitors: 43,629

• Total site visits: 184,810

• Total page views: 850,284

• Unique page views: 612,633

• Accounts created: 28,374

• Call center volume: 20,363

• Average call center wait time: 14 minutes

The exchange said it will begin reporting on Mondays the number of applications received.

Source: Washington Health Benefit Exchange

Alternatives to online

If you’re not comfortable with the online process, there are other ways you can apply for a health plan: You can contact a “navigator” who will help you with the process either online or in person, or you can contact an independent broker who is registered with the exchange. Available brokers and navigators can be viewed at the Healthplanfinder website or you can call the exchange call center toll-free at 855-923-4633. A printable copy of the application form can be downloaded at www.hca.wa.gov/medicaid/forms/Documents/18-001P.pdf.

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Like many other states’ online health-insurance exchanges, our state’s Washington Healthplanfinder was overwhelmed by unexpected user demand and behaviors for the first few days since it launched on Tuesday.

The site was brought down for about six hours shortly after it was launched, and its performance was erratic for some time after that.

But now that the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, the public-private company that manages the exchange, has fixed the system and the site is running smoothly, it’s a good time to take a tour.

The folks at the benefit exchange put a lot of effort into making the site straightforward and easy to navigate. For the most part, they succeeded.

The home page looks like, well, a government website, though cleaner and more friendly than most. A banner at the top reminds you of an important fact: Open enrollment in one of the more than 40 exchange-insurance plans takes place through March 31, 2014. Remember, though, that even if you select a plan today the coverage will not start until Jan. 1.

Directly below the banner you’ll find two buttons that will lead you through either finding and comparing health plans or applying for coverage. But wait. Just below these two buttons you can also choose either to sign in to your account or to create an account if you don’t have one. I went down the path of creating an account.

After I clicked on “Create an account,” I was asked to choose which kind of account to create: individual or employer. Since I’m an individual, I knew I’d want to click on that.

But I was curious about the “employer” option, especially since the explanation underneath it said, “If you are an employee, your employer will provide you with a unique URL to set up and access your account.”

So I was uncertain as to whether the “employer” option was really meant for “employees,” who would then be connected to a request for that URL. I followed the link and found that it was meant for employers.

Once I got back on the Individual track, the process was simple. I was asked to create a user name, and to enter my password and email address. I was also required to set up three security questions.

Having created my account, I was prompted to enter my Social Security number and a long series of answers to questions about who I am. I also had to check a box that indicated that I had read the exchange’s privacy policy. (Right ... )

Part way through the process, I realized I was actually filling in an application for insurance. But I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to look into plans and I didn’t see any options for doing so.

It turns out that you can’t compare plans when you’re logged in to your account.

You have to click on “Save and logout,” then return to the home page and click on the Finding and Comparing Health Plans button.

Curiously, when you click on Finding and Comparing Health plans, a new screen appears offering the same choice between Finding and Comparing Health plans and Applying for a Plan. In addition, there’s information about what you’ll need to complete the process — Social Security numbers, dates of birth for all family members applying, and household income.

If you click on Apply for a Plan, you’ll be taken directly to the page for creating an account. (Remember, you can’t get here if you’re logged in to your existing account, so the site assumes you don’t have one.)

Clicking on Find Quality Coverage takes you to a page where you enter your ZIP code and county, ages of applicants and family income. There’s a check box next to the question, “Have you used tobacco regularly in the past six months?” That may confuse some users, since generally, check boxes are used to indicate answers rather than to select questions.

A more significant issue is that as you move through the pages, there often is no way to return to an earlier stage of the process. Instead, you have to start over.

Helpfully, the page that appears next allows you to filter plans by user-specified criteria, including premium ranges, deductibles, out-of-pocket limits, networks types and other factors. There’s also a link that allows you to filter the list of plans to include only those that allow you to see a specific doctor or hospital.

Each plan returned after you apply filters has a link at the top that will take you to more detailed information about the plan. Each entry also has two options listed underneath the brief listing of deductible, out-of-pocket expense limit, co-pay and emergency-room fees: You can add the entry to a group you want to compare in more detail or you can apply for the plan.

When you’ve added all the plans you want to the comparison list, just go to the top of the page and click on the View Comparison button to see a more detailed list of how the selected plans compare. And once you’ve found the plan you want, you click on the Apply button.

One caution: I was not able to find a way to save the results of my filtering, other than taking a screen capture of the section of the data that fit on the screen. The process of selecting a plan can be a long one and can require some thought, so it would be handy if there were a way to save your place so that you could return to it later.

Apart from that, and the division of what you can see depending upon whether you are signed in or not, I found the Healthplanfinder site to be quite straightforward and easy to follow. For a first effort covering such a complex topic, I give the site a thumbs up.

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer in Seattle. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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