- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

More than 500,000 people signed up for health plans through the federal Obamacare website in the first week of open enrollment this year, the administration said Thursday, calling it a “solid start” as officials try to meet their own reduced targets.

Two-thirds of the 543,098 enrollees were renewing coverage they already had, the Department of Health and Human Services said as it released figures for the 38 states that rely on the federal HealthCare.gov portal to run their exchanges.

Now in its third year, this round of Obamacare sign-ups began Nov. 1 and lasts through Jan. 31.

“It’s a solid start and I’m pleased with the consumer engagement we’ve seen over this last week. Our partners were ready to work, and people were ready to sign up,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in a blog post. “We know we have 11 more weeks to go and a lot of hard work still to do.”

The administration estimates that 10 million Americans will sign up for plans on the health care exchanges for next year, a small increase over the 9 million-plus enrollees it attracted for 2015 and far short of the 21 million that budget analysts initially projected.

Even President Obama has said it will be harder than ever to find people who haven’t signed up during the first two years, and that reaching them is critical to making his signature law succeed.

Congressional Republicans are trying to make it even harder by using a fast-track budget bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandates on individuals and businesses, as well as its taxes on medical device sales and the generous “Cadillac” plans offered by some employers.

The House already passed a repeal bill, and it’s now awaiting Senate action — but Republicans need to make sure it complies with arcane budget rules to ensure it can pass as part of the budget, which is the only way to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

Donald Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the GOP is working to try to write a bill that meets those goals.

But Democrats said the Senate’s referee — the parliamentarian — has already ruled that the House bill breaks Senate rules because the changes to Obamacare’s mandates only have an incidental effect on the budget.

That, they said, means the broad Obamacare repeal is dead.

“The idea put forth by Senator McConnell’s office that a so-called ‘technical fix’ can save Obamacare repeal in reconciliation is simply false,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s office said in a memo to reporters. “While Republicans may be able to make narrowly tailored changes that primarily have a budgetary effect, any fix that repeals the individual or employer mandates will require 60 votes and therefore will not pass.”

While senators plotted their next steps, the administration tried to goad more customers into Obamacare with a rare warning: Those who remain uncovered in 2016 will face a stiff penalty under the law’s “individual mandate.”

“Important: The penalty for not having health insurance is increasing,” a Thursday email blast to HealthCare.gov account holders said. “If you don’t have health coverage in 2016, you’ll risk having to pay $695 per person or more for the year.”

Though part of a routine series of reminders, the message demonstrated a willingness by HHS to highlight the tax penalty.

The tax had been a third rail of sorts during the law’s first two enrollment periods, as the administration instead highlighted the positive aspects of web-based insurance exchanges and government subsidies that made plans more affordable.

Analysts say some consumers don’t fully appreciate the brunt of the tax, which started at $95 or 1 percent of income over the filing threshold in 2014. It rose to $325 or 2 percent of income this year, and will spike to $695 or 2.5 percent of income for 2016.

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