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Obamacare 3 million shy of target — with 19 days left to sign up

Still not enough young people signing up to make system work

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

More than 4.2 million Americans had selected private health care plans from the Obamacare marketplace through the end of February, though the rate of sign-ups dropped last month and young people still aren't enrolling quickly enough, according to numbers the administration released Tuesday.

The Health and Human Services Department said one in four of the enrollees from Oct. 1 to March 1 were ages 18 to 34, which is short of the 40 percent that analysts say health insurers will need to offset higher costs of sick and elderly patients who cannot be denied coverage.

A month before the final deadline, the administration is nearly 3 million sign-ups shy of the 7 million target. With glitches in the HealthCare.gov website tamed, enrollments surged to 1,146,000 in January but dropped to 942,000 in February.

Administration officials noted that February has three fewer days than January and said they weren't fazed by the dip of almost 18 percent.

"It's not too late for Americans to sign up and get covered," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

But Republicans said the pace of enrollment shows that Americans are rejecting the health care law.

"It seems the president's push to enroll young adults is far too little, too late," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "The administration won't tell us how many people have actually paid for a plan or how many were previously uninsured. But what we do know is that young adults — those who the White House repeatedly said are critical — are deciding the health care law is a bad deal."

Also Tuesday, the House quickly passed a measure that would exempt Americans from the individual mandate requiring them to hold health insurance if they certify on their tax returns that obtaining coverage would violate their religious beliefs. The Republican-led House has passed numerous delays and repeals of Obamacare provisions; none has gone anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The latest HHS report covered the number of people who have signed up for health care plans, but it didn't say how many of those actually paid their premiums and thus have usable health insurance in hand. The numbers also don't specify how many of the 4.2 million had their health care plans canceled, versus how many are genuinely new health insurance recipients — Obamacare's supposed main beneficiaries.

Americans without coverage must attempt to sign up by March 31 to avoid penalties for flouting the individual mandate. The administration said it will not extend the sign-up period, meaning those who miss out will have to wait until open enrollment begins again Nov. 15.

Enrollment is lagging behind the pace needed to meet even the administration's adjusted goal of 6 million by the end of March.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, declined multiple times on a conference call to say whether the administration thinks it will reach the 6 million target, itself dialed back from 7 million, even as she said "millions more" will enter the marketplace.

She and other department officials predicted a final surge in March, saying that was what happened ahead of deadlines for Massachusetts' state health law and for the federal Medicare prescription drug program.

President Obama pitched HealthCare.gov to a younger demographic Tuesday in a humorous turn on "Between Two Ferns," a show hosted by comedian Zach Galifianakis on the Funny or Die website that spoofs cable-access talk programs.

The taped clip, which shows the two men trading barbs as Mr. Obama plugs his health care law, went viral and included a link to HealthCare.gov under a brief description of the video.

Officials said the effort was paying off because HealthCare.gov showed 19,000 Web referrals from Funny or Die.

Tuesday's report was the fifth monthly installment released by the Obama administration since the health care exchanges opened in October. The exchanges are state-based online marketplaces where customers can buy private insurance plans and can obtain tax subsidies if their income is low enough for them to qualify.

Congress gave states the option of running their own exchanges or leaving it to the federal government, and 36 states chose to foist the responsibility onto the Obama administration in its first year.

About 2.6 million people signed up on the federally run exchange, while 1.6 million signed up on the 15 state-run exchanges.

HHS said 83 percent of all enrollees were deemed eligible for government assistance.

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