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Originally published Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 9:14 PM

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State readying to sign up 1 million uninsured

Washington state kicked off its effort to sign up uninsured residents for health insurance through a new federal law at a Tuesday meeting in Seattle. Everything must be ready to go by Oct. 1.

Seattle Times health reporter

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The hundred-plus people who showed up at Tuesday’s “coverage is here” event — meant to kick off the effort to sign up uninsured Washington residents for health insurance through a new federal law — were one enthusiastic bunch.

At a meeting room in downtown Seattle, they stood to cheer as Gov. Jay Inslee, a key Affordable Care Act advocate, took the podium, and they listened raptly as speakers from various health agencies and nonprofits detailed their best ideas for signing up the uninsured.

They’ll advertise at sports events and on buses and have information available at libraries and hospital emergency rooms. They’re training legions of people to help assist those who need insurance — in their own languages and with cultural sensitivity.

An online “healthplanfinder” will let people compare apples and apples, letting them choose among three different levels of coverage from different plans. Linked to federal systems, it will instantly let people know if they qualify for coverage and for subsidies.

For the first time people with some health conditions, previously shut out of insurance, will be able to buy it, and may get help paying for it.

Washington is ahead of most states in its effort to get ready, but for the people in this room — those on the ground, in counties large and small — Oct. 1 suddenly has become very near and the challenges very real. That’s the date everything must be ready to go, including the online marketplace to buy coverage beginning in 2014, as well as all the people now being trained to assist the first wave of approximately 1 million uninsured in Washington.

One of the biggest challenges — although certainly not the only one — will be signing up the young, healthy people known as the “young invincibles.” That tag is shorthand for their belief that they don’t really need health insurance because nothing will ever happen to them.

That’s not true, but in fact, they typically don’t have lots of health expenses, so their premiums will help ensure that insurers stay financially healthy.

“Young people will be critical to our success,” said Ani Fete, director of state assistance for Enroll America, a nonprofit advocacy organization helping states and organizations target particular audiences.

Currently, however, the young invincibles’ mindset about buying insurance is negative, Fete said.

Michael Marchand, communications director with the state’s Health Benefit Exchange, which is creating the online “healthplanfinder” tool, said the issue isn’t about technology. “This is a social behavioral issue,” he said. “How do we get people to value health insurance?”

Focus groups and surveys show while most people feel health insurance is necessary or very important, cost is a big barrier for many — particularly young people, said Fete. But they can be won over if they understand what a good deal they may be getting, how coverage will protect their financial health, all the areas that each policy must cover — and see that these newly created policies use simple language and lack confusing “fine print,” she said.

If all else fails, advocates said, they will rely on those that these young people trust. Most often, that’s their mothers, Marchand said, so they’ll target moms with pro-enrollment messages so they’ll have the right information to seal the deal.

Those attending the event included representatives of hospitals, physician groups, Medicaid, government agencies, health insurers, community clinics, public-health departments and elected officials, as well as advocacy organizations for ethnic groups, children, homeless people and those with particular illnesses.

The federal government has provided $150 million in grants to help Washington get rolling, Inslee said, and the expansion of Medicaid, which will provide federal subsidies to those eligible, helped balance the state budget so more money could go to education.

The law will also create an estimated 10,000 new jobs in the state, Inslee said, and will encourage homegrown entrepreneurship.

“From now on, you won’t be stuck in a job you don’t like just for the health-care premiums,” he said. “This is a freedom issue, not just a health issue.”

The law, said Susan Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “is a promise to millions of people across the country,” and making it happen will require work.

But “we’re going forward,” she told the crowd. “We know how to do this.”

Carol M. Ostrom: costrom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-policy research and communication organization that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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