Administration Crosses Fingers for Robust Obamacare Enrollment

Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult

Consumer advocates and Obama administration officials started working Tuesday to sign up millions of consumers for Obamacare coverage as the fourth open enrollment period kicks off.

Kevin Counihan, the CEO of HealthCare.gov, said the administration is going “all out” this year with an education campaign and on-the-ground partnerships to encourage sign-ups. The administration needs a successful enrollment to ease concerns about the cost of insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“We want to make sure everyone knows it’s easier than ever to visit the marketplace, compare your options, see if you qualify for lower costs, and sign up for the plan that best meets your needs and budget,” Counihan said in a statement Tuesday. “That’s why we’re going all out for open enrollment this year, with a top-tier public education campaign and on-the-ground partnerships to reach people where they are and spread the word about the opportunity to enroll in affordable coverage.”

Over the past few weeks, the administration has announced a slate of partnerships with technology companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and outreach efforts via email, direct mail and social media. Around the country, advocates and volunteers will work with consumers to educate them about the law and their available options.

This year’s sign-up period comes at a critical time for the health law as questions have been raised about the strength and stability of its marketplaces. Premiums for marketplace plans are rising significantly in many parts of the country, and decisions by some insurers to retreat from the exchanges means that some consumers have fewer choices.

Still, Obama administration officials say they are confident and urged consumers to visit the marketplace, whether they have had ACA coverage in the past or are currently uninsured. They have sought to remind consumers that federal financial assistance for premiums will rise with premiums and that coverage will remain affordable for most people.

“This year, the vast majority of consumers will qualify for tax credits that help keep coverage affordable, and it’s easier than ever to shop around and compare options,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement. “As we sound today’s opening bell, let’s also take stock of the historic gains in coverage we’ve made as a country, and work together to continue that progress.”

The administration projects that an average of 11.1 million people will have Obamacare coverage during any one month next year. They expect more than 13.8 million people will sign up for coverage during the open enrollment period, which would be more than 1 million new sign-ups than in 2016.

Still, health policy experts have warned that getting people to the marketplace could be more difficult because of the news of rising premiums. Republicans have jumped on that fact in the final weeks of the election, hoping to rally voters around an alternative to the health law.

“Open enrollment is now essentially two dismal choices: people can either pay sky-high premiums for a plan they don’t want or need or pay a penalty,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Finance Committee, said the administration is trying to put a positive spin on the premium news.

“Instead of a program that hasn’t met its promises, we should look for more ways to encourage employers to offer good health care coverage to their employees,” Grassley said.

Grassley ticked off a number of things that Republicans could ask for next year if negotiations to build on the health law advance in Congress. (That would assume Hillary Clinton wins the White House, making Republican efforts to repeal the ACA all but impossible.)

“We should crack down on frivolous lawsuits, let people purchase insurance across state lines, improve transparency in health care prices, give states more freedom to improve Medicaid and use consumer choice to drive competition, which drives down costs,” Grassley said.

Grassley said the administration hasn’t answered questions about how many potential enrollees would stay away from the exchanges because of the news about rising premiums or how many enrollees might drop their coverage throughout the year because they can’t afford their premiums.

In past years, the administration has projected the number of people they expected to sign up and the number they expected to have coverage at the end of the year. This year, officials are projecting how many people they expect to have active policies at any point throughout the year.

We’re not moving the goal post. We’re just using what we believe is a more meaningful metric,” said Kathryn Martin, HHS’s acting assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, said last month.

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