- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2016

President Obama on Friday said 670,000 people selected a health plan on the federal Obamacare website Thursday — the deadline for being covered at the start of 2017 — making it the all-time busiest day for HealthCare.gov.

The administration cited “extraordinary demand” in granting customers an extra four days to complete their enrollment, as Mr. Obama tries to beat back political and financial headwinds to his signature domestic achievement.

Consumers who wanted to hold coverage as of Jan. 1 were supposed to sign up by midnight Thursday. Yet officials said people who’d started the process could finish up through 11:59 p.m. Monday, Pacific time.

The extension was unexpected yet not surprising — it had been a standard feature of the Affordable Care Act’s earlier rounds, akin to allowing people to vote if they get in line before the polls close.

“Hundreds of thousands have already selected plans over the last few days, and nearly a million of you have left contact information to hold your place in line. We want to make sure all of you have access to affordable coverage. These additional days will give you a chance to come back and complete your enrollment for coverage starting Jan. 1,” officials said late Thursday in a message on HealthCare.gov, which serves 39 states.

State-run exchanges announced their own extensions, including an extra four days in California, where enrollment is slightly ahead of last year’s pace (7,000 people).

Covered California initially pushed the cutoff to Saturday, only to then extend it to Monday to align with the federal exchange’s plans.

“This strong demand shows that Californians are using the competitive marketplace that Covered California provides,” said Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California. “We are ahead of last year’s pace and are giving our Service Center staff and certified enrollers the time they need to bring health care coverage to thousands more.”

The Obama White House is urging millions of Americans to brush aside GOP talk of “repeal and “replace” and sign up before key deadlines, so it is more difficult for President-elect Donald Trump to unravel its gains after taking office on Jan. 20, or 11 days before 2017 open enrollment ends.

Obamacare has been battered by dwindling choices and rising premiums on its web-based exchanges, fueling talk of repeal after voters handed Republicans the keys to health care reform in the November elections.

“If the open enrollment period proves successful and sign-ups grow, it’s a clear sign that the law is not collapsing,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “That probably won’t stop the repeal of the law, but could make it a bit more difficult. If enrollment grows, it makes it more likely that potential market chaos introduced by repeal and delay could get blamed on the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.”

Indeed, the GOP faces a tough task ahead. It is plotting to fulfill its campaign promises by using fast-track budget rules to swiftly repeal the law, while freezing aspects of it in place to bridge millions of covered Americans over to a replacement, although Republicans haven’t settled on an actual plan.

Analysts say repealing the law without a smooth transition could have disastrous effects for current enrollees, because insurers who’ve already lost money on the exchanges will flee a program that’s politically doomed.

For now, the administration is encouraging people to take advantage of taxpayer-funded subsidies that will make 2017 coverage more affordable, or else risk financial penalties that will remain in place until the GOP-controlled Congress and Mr. Trump decide to scrap the “individual mandate” requiring Americans to hold insurance or pay a tax.

The administration said 2017 sign-ups through Dec. 10 exceeded last year’s by 250,000, though its performance through the mid-December deadline will shed light on whether the administration can draw new customers and meet its target of 13.8 million customers by Jan. 31 — compared to 12.7 million who initially signed up for 2016.

“We won’t know for sure until the final numbers come in, but this certainly looks like a strong surge in enrollment,” Mr. Levitt said. “There has been a lot of attention surrounding the ACA following the election, but it’s mostly been about the uncertainty surrounding the future of the law. It’s hard to say whether the negative attention has caused people to hesitate about signing up or made the ACA top of mind and encouraged enrollment.”

Mr. Obama celebrated the law’s gains during his year-end press conference Friday, saying his reforms insured roughly 20 million of the 44 million who lacked insurance when he took office in 2009.

“For the first time in our history,” he said, “more than 90 percent of Americans are insured.”

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