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Washington Health Exchange's Early Enrollees

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Washington’s health exchange got off to a bumpy start on its first day yesterday. The website was temporarily shut down all morning. People who tried to access the website experienced slowdowns and technical problems. But there were some people who managed avoid the glitches and sign up for health coverage.Charles Jackson has always had some kind of health insurance through work. But that changed last year. Jackson is on disability, his only source of income. The way he describes his income level is poor, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. “I’m still in poverty, just a little bit; my nose is hanging out the water still,” he laughs.

Jackson is 62 years old, just a few years shy of qualifying for Medicare. That means he’s entirely responsible for his medical costs. And his health issues have only grown. Recently he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Jackson says juggling his medical bills has been challenging.  “There were times when I didn’t have the money -- buy the drugs that you need, the meds, or eat.”

On opening day of the health exchange, Jackson went to his community clinic to sign up for health coverage. He’s among 180,000 King County residents who are newly eligible for either Medicaid or financial assistance to buy health insurance.

Like Jackson, 44-year-old Vera Johnson welcomed the chance to get affordable coverage. She lost her health insurance four years ago after her divorce. Buying a plan for herself and teenage daughter would have cost her up to $600 a month. It was beyond her means. Under the Affordable Care Act, Johnson expected to pay more like $100 a month. “But it turns out that today, after bringing my tax returns, that it’s actually free. I get it for free,” she says. “So am I happy about health care? Yes.”

And relieved, too. For years she’s put off checkups. Signing up for health care, she says, is about being able to take care of herself and her daughter.

“I’m going to be able to get a breast exam, I’m going to be able to take my daughter to the dentist on a regular basis, I’m going to be able to take her for annual checkups that she has not been getting.” Johnson says, “It’s kind of like a parent achievement award, almost, because I haven’t been able to provide that.”

Vera Johnson and Charles Jackson are two of an estimated 1 million Washington residents who are uninsured. The state’s goal is to get as many people signed as possible.

Year started with KUOW: 1994