Health care sign-ups surge as Obama tries to shore up law.
Americans signed up for Obamacare at a faster clip this year than in 2015, the administration reported Wednesday, putting the program on pace to meet President Obama’s watered-down enrollment goals and stiffening spines of Democrats hoping to preserve it against GOP attacks.
The vast majority of enrollees were existing customers re-upping for another year, while new enrollments were down compared to 2015 — highlighting the challenge Mr. Obama faces in trying to shore up his law before he leaves office.
The overhaul’s web-based exchanges need an influx of new, healthy enrollees to make the economics work out.
“We’re going to keep moving forward. We’re going to finish this open enrollment by trying to enroll more people than ever,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said, detailing final numbers after the mid-December deadline to sign up for coverage beginning at the start of the new year.
Already suffering from rising premiums and dwindling choices, Obamacare took another blow in November when Republicans won the White House and kept control of both chambers in Congress, creating an opportunity to make good on the GOP’s oft-repeated pledge to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Trump will be sworn in Jan. 20, or just before the 2017 open enrollment period ends, and the prospect of Republicans in control is already playing out.
HHS officials said more than 30,000 people have asked their call centers if they should bother signing up. The administration said it urged them to enroll anyway.
As of the mid-December deadline, 6.4 million people had signed up on HealthCare.gov, compared to 6 million last year at this point.
“The American people don’t want to go backwards, and they don’t want to gamble with their health care through repeal and delay,” Mrs. Burwell said.
About 4.3 million of the reported 6.4 million HealthCare.gov customers already had coverage and were re-upping for 2017, while roughly 2.1 million were new to the marketplace.
The HHS statistics don’t include numbers from states that run their own exchanges.
The exchanges need fresh blood to succeed after many insurers raised rates to contend with the high number of sick customers who signed up in earlier rounds.
HHS said it will try to win new recruits with advertising and social media outreach in the final six weeks of enrollment, striving to meet an overall goal of 13.8 million sign-ups for the entire 2017 enrollment period.
That would be an increase over the 12.7 million who initially signed up for 2016 coverage last year, though still short of the 15 million that congressional scorekeepers predicted just a few months ago.
“Overall enrollment is holding steady, and there is absolutely no sign of an imminent implosion in spite of significant premium increases and considerable uncertainty about the future of the law following the election,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
But, he added, “new sign-ups are down somewhat from last year, suggesting that it will be a challenge for the Obama administration to hit its projection for modest enrollment growth in 2017.”
Democratic governors fired a warning shot Wednesday to congressional GOP leaders, saying the repeal of Obamacare’s premium subsidies and expansion of Medicaid would sock states with a $69 billion bill for uncompensated medical care over the next decade.
“We have heard for six years now that you have a better option for federal health care policy, but we have not seen one. What Americans need to know now, before you move forward with repealing the ACA’s protections, is precisely how your plan would affect them,” Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and other leaders of the Democratic Governors Association wrote in a letter.
Obamacare tried to prod healthy people into the marketplace by requiring Americans to buy insurance or pay a tax. The “individual mandate” has been ineffective so far and remains unpopular, though the administration and its Democratic allies say the phased-in penalty just reached full strength and will be needed to balance out sick customers who cannot be denied coverage.
Republicans say they can use agebased tax credits and market forces to entice people into coverage, while insuring people with pre-existing medical conditions, though they haven’t fully sketched out their plans.
That’s prompted a round of nail-biting among hospital lobbyists, consumer advocates and Democrats who say the GOP’s zeal to repeal the law without a sure replacement could unravel the individual market.
Policy analysts say insurers who’ve already lost money on the exchanges might flee the existing programs if Obamacare is politically doomed.
At the same time, Republican leaders face a revolt on the political right if, after railing against the law for six years, they fail to pursue Obamacare repeal in January.
“Obamacare is hurting families, and before things get worse, we will act to repeal it so that we can bring relief as soon as possible,” the office of Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Wednesday.