December 16, 2017
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‘Obamacare’ sign-ups top 600,000 in first week

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press
Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Enrollment opens November 1 and runs through Dec. 15 for individual health insurance plans subsidized through the Affordable Care Act.

More than 600,000 people signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act in the first week of open enrollment, the government said Thursday. That pace tracks with previous years despite persistent political turmoil over the health law.

Figures released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services showed that 601,462 people signed up Nov. 1-4 in the 39 states served by the federal HealthCare.gov website. Of those, about 77 percent were returning customers renewing their coverage, and about 23 percent were new consumers, a split that also mirrors previous years.

Sign-ups for states running their own health insurance markets are not usually included in the early data snapshot. That means that nationally, overall enrollment is higher than reflected in Thursday’s statistics. Enacted under former President Barack Obama, the health law offers subsidized private insurance plans to people who don’t have health coverage on the job.

Enrollment numbers are being closely watched this year because of the Trump administration’s open disdain for the program.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly tweeted that “Obamacare” is collapsing or imploding, and abruptly stopped payments that reimburse insurers for providing lower copays and deductible, contributing to a spike in premiums for next year. His administration cut the sign-up season in half, slashed the advertising budget, and dialed back on counselors that help consumers enroll.

But despite all the uproar, some independent analysts said they don’t detect any dramatic impact on the program, at least not yet.

“If there was sabotage, you would expect to see these numbers substantially lower in the beginning of the year, because people wouldn’t know it was open enrollment season,” said Chris Sloan, a senior manager with the health industry consulting firm Avalere Health.

The numbers don’t seem to indicate a surge in consumer interest either, he added. “If there was a surge, you would expect these numbers to be substantially higher,” Sloan said.

Separately, a study of the federal HealthCare.gov website for The Associated Press by the technology firm Catchpoint Systems found it running smoothly. Catchpoint monitors consumer experience with major business websites.

The seemingly drama-free start to sign-up season doesn’t mean an end to concerns about the Trump administration’s stewardship of the program.

“There was a lot of confusion going into this open enrollment period,” Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation said.

Open enrollment ends much earlier this year, on Dec. 15. Since there’s usually a surge of procrastinators at the end, what happens in the last week of sign-up season will be critical.

In counterpoint to the Trump administration’s efforts to unravel “Obamacare,” a quirk this year means that millions of consumers who are eligible for income-based financial assistance will have access to basic “bronze” plans for no monthly premium. Some experts have said that could lead to increased enrollment, but it’s still too early to tell.

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