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Politics And Policy
Health Law Sign-Ups Near 6.4 Million
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 13:40:38 EST
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said the second enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act has largely avoided technology problems.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said the second enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act has largely avoided technology problems. European Pressphoto Agency

WASHINGTON—Almost 6.4 million people selected a health-care plan on the federal marketplace or were automatically re-enrolled in the first month of the Affordable Care Act’s open enrollment season, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Tuesday.

High consumer demand in mid-December helped boost the overall total, which includes about 1.9 million new consumers who obtained private health coverage on the federal marketplace, Ms. Burwell said in a briefing with reporters. She said 4.5 million people who had coverage in 2014 were re-enrolled. Out of those, more than 30% had come back on their own to re-enroll, but she didn’t supply a firm number. The others were automatically re-enrolled. The totals don’t include consumers who shopped for or selected plans through state-based marketplaces.

The sign-ups through Dec. 19 indicate that the second enrollment period under the ACA, which runs through Feb. 15, is off to “an encouraging start,” Ms. Burwell said.

“We still have a ways to go but we are headed in the right direction, the marketplace is stable, people have chosen to shop,” she said.

The sign-ups far outstrip last year, when HealthCare.gov was hobbled by technology problems that frustrated users. About 106,185 people had enrolled and selected a plan on the federal exchanges between Oct. 1, 2013 and Nov. 2, 2013.

In total, some 6.7 million people had paid-up health coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance state and federal exchanges as of mid-October 2014.

HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange that serves 37 states, has been under scrutiny as many Republicans have sought to repeal or curtail the ACA. This fall’s enrollment has been seen as a critical test of the health care law and the federal website, which has undergone upgrades and new management after last year’s chaotic debut.

In one snafu, in the days leading up to a Dec. 15 deadline for changing or picking coverage that kicks in on Jan. 1, about 500,000 consumers who contacted a call center during that time of high volume were asked to leave contact information. HHS officials said those people would still be allowed to have coverage that kicked in Jan. 1, in a partial extension of the Dec. 15 deadline. The vast majority were reached by Dec. 18 by HHS officials.

Millions of Americans who didn’t go back to the site to select new coverage have been automatically re-enrolled—and may be surprised by higher premiums next year because other plans may be less expensive or their premiums may have risen. HealthCare.gov had been automatically re-enrolling users who didn’t return to the site to make changes to coverage. Some of those users will have their current plans renewed, and others, whose plans are being discontinued, will be moved into similar plans.

Some state-run insurance sites extended enrollment deadlines and in-person sign-up hours due to heavy last-minute demand. For HealthCare.gov users, the average call-center wait time in from Dec. 13 through Dec. 19 was about 23 minutes. That is higher than the overall 9-minute wait time from Nov. 15 through Dec. 19, according to HHS.

Aside from the current open-enrollment season, Ms. Burwell said an important U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the subsidies provided on the federal exchange hasn’t changed the department’s focus in encouraging consumers to sign up for coverage. The Supreme Court said it would hear oral arguments on March 4 in the lawsuit contesting tax credits to consumers who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange. An estimated 4.7 million Americans have received such subsidies.

“Nothing has changed in our open enrollment in terms of subsidies and assistance people can get,” said Ms. Burwell. “One can create any kind of hypothetical about anything,” she said of the risk that consumers could lose subsidies based on the court’s ultimate ruling.

Enrollment is expected to continue climbing closer to the Feb. 15 deadline. The Obama administration has said it expects up to 9.9 million people to have private coverage through the ACA’s insurance exchanges in 2015, although that still falls short of the 13 million who were initially expected to enroll under an April 2014 projection by the Congressional Budget Office.

About 14 million people used the HealthCare.gov website between Nov. 15 and Dec. 19, according to HHS.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com



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