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Centerpiece of health care reform launches in Washington

Consultant David Smith of GMMB recommended this name and logo for the new entity currently called the Health Benefits Exchange - but it made some board members nervous.
Consultant David Smith of GMMB recommended this name and logo for the new entity currently called the Health Benefits Exchange - but it made some board members nervous.

Washington is one of the first states to begin tackling the requirements of President Obama's health care reform, even though the U.S. Supreme Court will approve or kill the controversial national system this summer.

The fist step in the reform is to create a Health Benefits Exchange. Each state is supposed to create its own insurance exchange as a new way for individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance.

Washington's board set up to create this exchange had its first meeting on Thursday.

What the board will do

The new board is challenged with making shopping for your own health insurance  simpler and cheaper with a system that is better than what's already available online.

Although the leaders are appointed by the governor and legislature, it’ll function more like a private non-profit organization.

“We make a comparison to Travelocity, or Expedia, those travel websites,” says Molly Voris, who’s acting director of the Health Benefits Exchange, as it gets up and running.

On those travel websites, you can see the departure times and compare prices for a bunch of airlines, all at once. Similarly, the exchange will create a website for comparison shopping. And because it’s from a quasi-governmental agency, she says, the information and ratings will be unbiased.

“Right now there isn’t the opportunity to do that, to have unbiased information,” she says.

What's available now

There is an existing website that appears to offer easy-to-use comparisons. It’s called

In fact, Margaret Stanley, the chairwoman of the new Health Benefits Exchange Board says she recommends ehealthinsurance to other people.

What ehealthinsurance can’t do, under the new law, is offer government subsidies for insurance. And the new federal law will provide substantial subsidies – not just for poor people. Families earning up to about $90,000 may qualify for subsidies.

If you have coverage through your work, you can ignore it, and keep puzzling through “open enrollment” season with your employer.

A year to finish

One key to success will be keeping it simple, says Stanley, who’s worked both in government and the insurance industry.

“If we can't make it simpler than the Medicare prescription drug program, we are in trouble. I got four inches worth of material when I became eligible for it, and I finally gave up. I just couldn’t deal with it, and I spent my whole career in this field.”

The exchange board and staff have a little over a year to create a website, prepare for e-commerce, open a call-center, and set some of the rules for insurance companies.

A little politics ...

Health care politics started creeping into that first board meeting. There was disagreement over how much the exchange should promote itself. Consultant David Smith of GMMB presented several possible ways to brand the new exchange. That left board member Steve Appel asking if it was misleading to try to divorce the organization from current politics.

Should it have a catchy name and logo? Or just call itself the Benefits Exchange? The board decided to table those questions until its next monthly meeting, in April

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.