Early sign-ups for health care law steady, but no surge
Washington — A little more than 1 million people renewed health coverage or signed up for the first time through HealthCare.gov around the start of open enrollment, which coincided with a GOP election sweep that’s likely to scramble President Barack Obama’s signature law.
The figures released Wednesday by the Obama administration represent steady sign-ups but no enrollment surge so far.
The overall number is fairly comparable to early sign-ups last year, but the share of new customers is down. They accounted for 24 percent of the total so far this year, compared with 34 percent in the first two weeks of last year’s open enrollment season. Nearly 1.1 million people had enrolled last year by about the same time.
The 2017 early sign-up figures are for Nov. 1-12, while the closest numbers from last year cover a full two weeks.
Even before the election that put Republicans in charge, the health care law was facing strong headwinds in 2017. The remaining uninsured are harder to reach and persuade. Premiums for a standard plan are going up an average of 25 percent in the 39 states served by HealthCare.gov, and insurer exits have left about one-third of U.S. counties with only one carrier.
President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress are pledging to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, although it has reduced the nation’s uninsured rate to a historic low of about 9 percent.
It’s shaping up as the most volatile open enrollment season since HealthCare.gov went live in 2013 and the computer system didn’t work.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell has set a goal of signing up 13.8 million people through the federal HealthCare.gov and state-run insurance markets, which offer taxpayer-subsidized private coverage to people without access to health care through their jobs. That would be an increase of about 1 million from the last open enrollment, so attracting new people is crucial.
The White House is hoping that robust numbers will translate into a strong closing argument for keeping many of the law’s essential parts.
Even though premiums are going up significantly, administration officials say most people will be cushioned from the impact because they receive subsidies designed to rise as their insurance costs increase. But an estimated 5 million to 9 million people who buy individual policies outside the law’s markets face the full brunt of increases.
During the campaign, Trump said the health overhaul was a “disaster,” but now he is signaling that he doesn’t want to take away coverage from the millions of people who have benefited. Independent studies estimated that Trump’s campaign plan would have caused 18 million to 20 million people to lose health insurance.
Republicans in Congress are puzzling over how to follow through on their promise to repeal the health care law while at the same time maintaining popular provisions, including protections for people with medical problems and allowing young adults to stay on parental coverage until age 26. Stripping away coverage could trigger a political backlash.
Open enrollment season for 2017 ends Jan. 31, but consumers who want their coverage to take effect at the start of the year have to act by Dec. 15.