Health care sign-ups surge as Obama tries to shore up law.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

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 Health­, 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 Health­ 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.

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