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The number of uninsured people in Washington state has been cut in half since health care reform took effect

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SEATTLE — The number of uninsured people in Washington state has been cut in half since health care reform took effect, but there are still about half a million uninsured people in the state, the insurance commissioner's office reported Wednesday.

The exact number of uninsured people is still unknown, but Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler says Washington has clearly made significant progress, thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the state's decision to expand access to free insurance through Medicaid.

Some of the 20 states that have not expanded access to the Medicaid program are now trying to do so, Kreidler said.

"It's just such common sense," Kreidler said. The federal government is paying for the program that has helped states like Washington dramatically cuts the ranks of the uninsured.

Kreidler notes that in states that did not expand Medicaid, the working poor who aren't insured at work have to choose between paying a federal fine or buying insurance they can't really afford.

On Monday, the people who run the state insurance exchange reported 200,000 people signed up for insurance during the open enrollment period that ended Sunday. That's about 35,000 more people than exchange officials expected.

More than 150,000 who didn't have insurance before the Affordable Care Act took effect have likely bought insurance in the individual market outside the exchange, Kreidler said. The rest of the newly insured in Washington state have signed up for Medicaid.

Kreidler credits several aspects of the Affordable Care Act for nearly cutting Washington's uninsured in half: the Medicaid expansion, the provision allowing parents to keep young people on their plans until age 26 and the states' insurance exchange.

Kreidler believes the remaining half a million people will need more help and assistance to sign up for health insurance. Health insurance is still too expensive for low income people who make too much to qualify for Medicaid. And some are still confused about the process.

"It's going to take work," Kreidler acknowledged.

Officials say the Washington residents still without health insurance are mostly between the ages of 18 and 34, earn lower incomes, are less educated and are mostly white or Hispanic.

Kreidler expects the numbers of uninsured people will continue to drop as the federal penalties for being uninsured continue to rise.

Adults who don't have insurance this year— through work or Medicaid or the individual market — will face penalties of at least $695. Families could be asked to pay more than $2,000 in fines.

Progress has been made in every Washington county, with the biggest changes in Adams, Yakima and Grays Harbor counties, Kreidler said, but the latest figures his department has to show this are from 2014.

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