- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

President Obama’s top health official said Tuesday that 2014 marks a “new day in health care for millions of Americans,” with more than 2 million people having enrolled in a private plan as of Saturday and nearly 4 million finding out they’re eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program through the end of November.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rang in the new year by focusing on Obamacare’s strides of late, with no mention of the people who may have lost plans that did not meet the law’s coverage requirements.

“The new law is transformational for our entire health care system,” Mrs. Sebelius said.

She said about half of the 2.1 million people who selected private plans through the Affordable Care Act did so through HealthCare.gov, the federal portal that serves the 36 states that did not set up their own health exchange.

But officials could not say Tuesday how many of the 2.1 million who signed up through Obamacare were newly insured persons, versus those trying to sustain their coverage because the law’s impact on the insurance market kicked them off an existing plan.

Nor did they present data on the age of the enrollees, a key concern as the administration tries to attract young, healthy enrollees to the marketplace and keep premiums in check.

Instead, Mrs. Sebelius reminded people on a conference call that 3 million young adults up to age 26 will have coverage through their parents’ plan, and that sicker consumers used to be denied coverage for having pre-existing medical conditions.

“Tomorrow those days are coming to an end,” she said.

New Year’s Day has been a red-letter date on Capitol Hill for months, after it became clear that millions of people in 2014 would lose barebones plans that didn’t comply with Obamacare — despite Mr. Obama’s repeated and emphatic vow that people could keep plans they liked under his law — “period.”

Republican lawmakers jumped on the false promise, placing Democrats up for re-election next year in peril.

In response, Mr. Obama tried to walk back the consequences of the cancellations by urging insurers to renew their barebones or allowing people who lost coverage to apply for a hardship exemption from the law’s requirement that all Americans hold some form of health coverage.

Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, released a report Monday that said the number of people who were unable to regain coverage after receiving a cancellation notice is likely under 10,000 people, or 0.2 percent of the estimate made by opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

“This new report shows that people will get the health insurance coverage they need, contrary to the dire predictions of Republicans,” said Mr. Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Millions of American families are already benefitting from the law.”

Administration officials acknowledged that some “transitional” issue may arise after the ball drops and brings a tumultuous 2013 to a close.

The debut of Obamacare on Oct. 1 was marked by rampant glitches on HealthCare.gov and some of the 15 state-run web portals tied to the law, a rocky experience that left the fate of the reforms in doubt before technical improvements were completed.

HHS officials said call center personnel will be on-hand to assist people who tried to enroll in coverage in time for Jan. 1, and reminded consumers to check with their insurer to figure out when their first premiums are due and to make sure they are covered.

Consumers might be able to get proof of insurance before they obtain their physical insurance card, they noted.
Despite the administration’s rosy outlook, the latest enrollment numbers lag behind the pace needed to achieve an oft-stated target of 7 million enrollees by the end of March.

On Tuesday, the administration downplayed that goal.

“That was never our target number,” White House health care adviser Phil Schiliro told MSNBC.

However, in June, Mrs. Sebelius said the administration was “hopeful that seven million is a realistic target.” In an interview with NBC News a day before HealthCare.gov launched Oct. 1, Mrs. Sebelius said that “I think success looks like at least seven million people having signed up by the end of March 2014.”

Mr. Schiliro, a former Obama aide who returned to the White House this month to help with health care strategy, said Mrs. Sebelius cited the figure because it had come from the CBO — Congress’s non-partisan budget scorekeeper — “and it had become an accepted number.”

“There’s no magic to the 7 million,” he said.

David Sherfinksi contributed to this report.



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