A working website and more new customers than expected has Obamacare headed toward enrollment that will blow past the lowered projections of its managers.
With the program’s first deadline looming on Dec. 15, when people who want coverage beginning Jan. 1 must sign up, little has gone wrong so far in the second enrollment season for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Technical problems have been scattered and largely resolved. Consumer interest is strong, with 1.4 million people signed up through Dec. 5 in 37 states using the federal healthcare.gov system.
It’s a dramatic turnabout from a year ago, when the federal website was brought to a standstill by errors, requiring a two-month repair effort. The government will probably surpass a goal of 9.1 million signed up for private coverage by the time enrollment closes in February, said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“They should meet their target quite comfortably,” he said in an e-mail.
Caroline Pearson, a vice president at Avalere Health, a consulting firm in Washington, predicted that as many as 5 million new customers will join about 6 million expected to renew their 2014 coverage. The final number may depend on President Barack Obama, who helped create a surge of business last March by personally promoting enrollment, Pearson said.
“You cannot underestimate the bully pulpit of the White House in terms of actually getting people to wake up and realize there’s options for them,” she said in a phone interview.
Kevin Counihan, the chief executive officer of healthcare.gov, referred questions about enrollment to a spokesman, Aaron Albright, who didn’t immediately comment. To achieve 9.1 million paying customers, or what is called effectuated enrollment, the health department has estimated it will have to initially sign up more than 10 million.
Obama appeared Dec. 8 on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” where he took the place of host Stephen Colbert for a regular segment called “The Word” -- retitled “The Decree” for his appearance -- to pitch enrollment to young viewers.
“Most young people can get covered for less than $100,” Obama said, using lines purportedly meant for Colbert. “How is the president going to get that message out to the kids? He could try to appeal to them directly through a speech or a press conference, but young people don’t watch real news shows like this one. They watch comedy shows, and I just don’t see the president going on one of those.”
The Congressional Budget Office, which has estimated the law’s impact on U.S. health insurance coverage, expects about 13 million people to be enrolled in private plans sold through government-run insurance exchanges next year. The Obama administration distanced itself from that projection in November, saying the law’s programs would take longer than the budget office expected to ramp up and that employers haven’t eliminated workers’ health benefits in the numbers once anticipated, which would have moved more people to the government’s marketplace.
Advocates for the law are mounting a promotional effort this weekend, ahead of the Dec. 15 deadline. People who don’t sign up by then can’t get coverage effective before Feb. 1. Customers already enrolled in Affordable Care Act plans will be automatically renewed in their current coverage after Dec. 15. Federal officials have encouraged current customers to shop around instead, out of concern that people who automatically renew may see unexpected premium increases in January.
Enroll America, a Washington-based group that organizes enrollment efforts in 11 states, planned about 600 local events to help people sign up this week, Anne Filipic, the group’s president, said in a phone interview.
In the first weekend enrollment began on Nov. 15, most customers were uninsured people, she said, rather than people who had first signed up last year.
“We’ve seen that really even out, and have seen more and more folks looking to renew their coverage,” Filipic said.
As a result, renewals may be less of a headache for the government than expected: Pearson said about 16 percent of current Affordable Care Act customers had already returned to healthcare.gov to shop around before renewing their coverage, more than she or Levitt expected.
“I really expected very few people to come on the site and renew,” Levitt said in a phone interview. “So far it’s hundreds of thousands of people.”
That puts the government on pace to draw as many as 70 percent of current customers back to government enrollment systems to check their coverage before sign-ups end Feb. 15, Pearson said. Federal officials have said most people can save money by switching from their current plan to a lower-cost one with similar benefits.
“If you get anywhere near 50 percent of people actively renewing I will be stunned,” Pearson said. “Despite the fact that exchange enrollees are very price sensitive, there’s tremendous inertia when shopping for health insurance. No one likes to shop; everyone wants to just stay in the plan they picked last year.”
The Health and Human Services Secretary, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, will travel to Arizona and Texas Dec. 13-14 -- states with large uninsured populations -- to promote enrollment. Her department wants churches to participate in a “Faith Weekend of Action” and encourage their members to sign up before the deadline. Healthcare.gov, meanwhile, sent an e-mail Dec. 10 to millions of people with accounts on the system, warning them that four days remain to enroll in a plan beginning Jan. 1.
“Take a few minutes to apply. It’s worth it,” the message said.
In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Health Access Partnership, a group that helps people enroll, was planning a telethon on Thursday broadcast by the local ABC affiliate. Sarah Hackenbracht, the group’s executive director, said she hopes the Obama administration will extend the Dec. 15 deadline, as it did last year.
“This is still a very new process for a lot of people,” she said in a phone interview. “Most people have a lot of other focuses this month, particularly it being a holiday month, that maybe their health insurance isn’t at the top of their minds.”
Andy Slavitt, the principle deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which manages the Affordable Care Act, said in a Dec. 4 conference call with reporters that “we do not plan on extending deadlines.”
“If there are specific situations that are very, very limited that we need to re-evaluate at the time, of course we’ll do that,” he added.