Oba­macare open en­roll­ment pe­riod to show weak­ened law

Pre­mium costs up 37%; op­tions shrink

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

Oba­macare cus­tomers saw higher pre­mi­ums and fewer choices when they be­gan en­rolling Wed­nes­day for cover­age next year, ac­cord­ing to a se­ries of stud­ies that found the health care law’s struggles are grow­ing.

Pre­mi­ums for bench­mark sil­ver-level plans on the fed­eral Health­Care.gov por­tal will rise 37 per­cent, and eight states will have only one in­surer of­fer­ing plans, the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment re­ported, as cus­tomers shun Oba­macare and in­sur­ers jack up rates to make up for President Trump’s de­ci­sion to halt “cost-shar­ing re­duc­tion” pay­ments to the in­sur­ance com­pa­nies.

But there are bar­gains to be had, the govern­ment said. In a quirk of pric­ing and govern­ment con­trols, top-level gold plans may be cheaper than sil­ver plans in some states, the HHS re­port said.

State of­fi­cials said it’s a bright spot in an oth­er­wise chal­leng­ing cli­mate for the law af­ter Mr. Trump slashed the en­roll­ment pe­riod in half and cut out­reach funds.

Howard Haft, in­terim ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mary­land Health Ben­e­fit Ex­change, urged unin­sured res­i­dents to check out their op­tions this year, “even if they’ve looked be­fore and chose not to en­roll.”

“From what they’ve heard and read, many may be sur­prised to find plans com­pa­ra­ble to or even cheaper than a year ago, if they qual­ify for fi­nan­cial help,” he said.

In­deed, the av­er­age tax credit sub­sidy the fed­eral govern­ment will pay to help con­sumers af­ford cover­age on the ex­changes will rise by 45 per­cent com­pared with last year, mean­ing tax­pay­ers will pay an ever-higher tab to keep peo­ple on their cover­age.

Those who don’t qual­ify for govern­ment sub­si­dies, mean­while, will feel the brunt of ris­ing pre­mi­ums, likely chas­ing some out of the mar­ket en­tirely.

Mr. Trump’s HHS does not plan to es­ti­mate an en­roll­ment tar­get, break­ing with the prac­tice un­der President Obama, when the depart­ment reg­u­larly guessed each year at how many peo­ple would use the ex­changes.

Sev­eral out­side groups stepped into the gap to pro­duce their own es­ti­mates.

The lib­eral Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, cit­ing mul­ti­ple stud­ies, pre­dicted that the ex­changes will drop by up to 2 mil­lion cus­tomers next year. The cen­ter said en­roll­ment of 12.2 mil­lion would have been sta­ble if Mr. Trump at­tempted “good faith” ef­forts to main­tain the mar­ket­places.

S&P Global, a credit rat­ings agency, said it ex­pects en­roll­ment to fall by up to 13 per­cent, leav­ing 10.6 mil­lion to 11.4 mil­lion signups.

It cited re­duced out­reach, an en­roll­ment pe­riod that will last 45 days — down from 90 — and higher costs for un­sub­si­dized con­sumers.

Many cus­tomers use Health­Care.gov as a start­ing point be­fore they are di­rected to state-run por­tals, so those mar­ket­places are wor­ried about a down­stream im­pact on their own en­roll­ment.

“I doubt it’s go­ing to grow. I hope it doesn’t shrink,” said Mila Kof­man, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the city-run ex­change in the Dis­trict of Columbia.

“I’m very wor­ried about new cus­tomers,” she said. “And there’s just been so much con­fu­sion cre­ated by ev­ery­thing the fed­eral govern­ment has done, so I’m wor­ried about re­ten­tion.”

Mr. Trump’s HHS says the law is to blame for stum­bles head­ing into next year be­cause lack­lus­ter en­roll­ment in the early rounds cre­ated a sick and costly risk pool that boosted rates and scared off in­sur­ers.

The to­tal num­ber of is­suers of­fer­ing plans is down to 132 from 237 last year — a 44 per­cent de­crease.

Eight states will have only one in­surer oper­at­ing on their ex­changes, and 29 per­cent of en­rollees will be able to choose from only one in­surer, up from 20 per­cent last year and 2 per­cent in 2016.

“This data demon­strates just how rapidly Oba­macare’s ex­changes are de­te­ri­o­rat­ing with sky­rock­et­ing pre­mi­ums year af­ter year, more than half of Amer­i­cans with no more than two in­sur­ers to choose from, and the tax­payer bur­den ex­plod­ing. There is an ur­gent and se­ri­ous need to re­peal this failed law and re­place it with pa­tient-cen­tered so­lu­tions,” HHS spokes­woman Caitlin Oak­ley said.

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