Obamacare signups still lag, but could recover

By | November 28, 2018

Sign-ups for Obamacare continue to fall behind last year’s pace, but the final tally could jump in two weeks when millions more current customers are automatically re-enrolled into the program if they fail to drop out or make changes.

The latest numbers out Wednesday from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show that during the first 24 days of open enrollment, 2,424,913 people signed up for health insurance plans on healthcare.gov, the Obamacare website that connects people with private insurance who don’t have coverage through a job or government program.

Around the same time last year, at 25 days into enrollment, 2,781,260 people had signed up for coverage. By the end of the six-week sign-up period two weeks later, 8.7 million people were enrolled, a significantly larger sum than the current tally.

But, as is true every year, customers who already have Obamacare plans and don’t make any changes will be automatically enrolled in another one after the Dec. 15 deadline. Fewer health insurers left the marketplaces this year than in previous years, and the price of plans dropped slightly, so customers may have more incentive to remain in their current plans.

It’s possible, as well, that people are choosing to purchase health insurance directly through an insurer instead of on the healthcare.gov website. This would mean that the number of uninsured doesn’t rise even if the number that sign up through the federal marketplace goes down.

But only the final results of the different marketplaces will reveal the full story of this year’s open enrollment. Democrats have warned that sign-ups would fall behind this year, accusing the Trump administration of trying to sabotage Obamacare because it has cut the budget for navigators and advertisements for open enrollment, in addition to reducing the sign-up period from three months to six weeks.

The tax bill that President Trump signed into law late last year also zeroed out a fine on the uninsured, meaning people will not be penalized beginning in 2019 if they choose to go uninsured. The Trump administration also is allowing people to buy coverage outside of Obamacare’s rules.

Top House Democrats on Wednesday seized on the figures in a statement, saying that “these lagging numbers show that Republicans’ sabotage of our nation’s health care system is working.”

“The Trump administration has starved the program intended to help families get covered by refusing to make congressionally required investments in outreach and enrollment,” said Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Richard Neal of Massachusetts, and Bobby Scott of Virginia, all of whom are top Democrats on key health-related committees.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma in a press conference Tuesday, before the sign-up figures were released, declined to make predictions about open enrollment but said her agency was working to make the website run smoothly. During healthcare.gov’s initial rollout, in 2013, it faced multiple technical problems that created long wait times and led to the resignation of then-Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Verma acknowledged that the sign-ups were happening at a slightly slower rate than last year but said it was still early and added that after the Thanksgiving holiday the sign-ups may accelerate. The cost of health insurance continued to be too steep for many customers, even though it had gone down slightly for the first time this year under her tenure, she noted.

“People signing up for coverage have a smooth experience,” Verma said of this year’s open enrollment website. “We are trying to aim for high customer satisfaction.”

After the press meeting on Tuesday she tweeted a reminder to the public of the Dec. 15 deadline, part of just a handful of tweets she has put out on open enrollment since the sign-up period started.

Verma declined to comment on the impact auto-enrollment might have on sign-up figures.

Within the total sign-ups reported Wednesday, 1,836,782 customers were renewing customers who already have a plan through the exchange, and 588,131 are new customers. The evaluation includes only sign-ups on healthcare.gov, which 39 states use, and therefore does not have information about the other states that run their own exchanges.