- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

President Obama on Tuesday vowed Obamacare is “here to stay” as he hailed the enrollment of more than 7 million people on the health exchanges, marking a stunning recovery after an embarrassing, glitch-filled rollout.

Nearly 3 million people enrolled in plans over the last month as they raced to beat Monday’s deadline for having insurance and avoiding the individual mandate tax penalty. The final enrollment figure of 7.1 million means the administration has hit its initial target, overcoming the website glitches that had threatened to derail the law.

Republicans said Mr. Obama had no reason to gloat over Americans who signed up “under duress,” and said the 7 million mark obscures key questions such as how many of those have actually paid their premiums or already had insurance but lost it because of Obamacare. Early reports suggest as many as one in five customers hasn’t paid up, and isn’t actually covered.

Still, for Democrats fearing political catastrophe, hitting the target was welcome news.

“The debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” Mr. Obama said during remarks in the White House Rose Garden, receiving a standing ovation led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

The enrollment number has been a key measure of the law’s success, since insurers were counting on a number of young, healthy Americans to sign up and begin paying into the system, which would cover costs for older, sicker Americans who can no longer be denied coverage.

The 7.1 million “enrollees” touted by the White House surpasses the 7-million projection initially made by the Congressional Budget Office, presuming those who selected a plan actually enroll by paying their respective insurers.

But Republicans said to truly gauge the enrollment, the administration will also have to say how many people forfeited their existing plans because of the law’s new standards.

“Despite the White House ‘victory lap,’ this law continues to harm the American people,”said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican,. “Every promise the president made has been broken: health care costs are rising, not falling.”

The House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would revise Obamacare’s definition of a full-time work week from 30 hours to a more traditional 40 hours. Mr. Obama’s critics say the current definition is costing jobs and wages, as employers cut back workers’ hours to avoid a part of the law that requires larger firms to provide health coverage or pay fines.

Four years after the law’s passage, the divergent views showcase the elusive nature of determining what success looks like under Obamacare.

Analysts said the ratio of healthy-to-sick enrollees is the most important metric, and premiums may skyrocket in some areas this summer after insurers take stock of the law’s first enrollment period. For others, rates may fall.

“I’ve got to admit, I don’t get it,” Mr. Obama said, illustrating the divide in Washington. “Why are people working so hard to make sure people don’t have health insurance?”

Yet dozens of his own congressional allies spent the last several months distancing themselves from the law’s stumbles and backed GOP-led attempts to scale back the law. Democrats also tread warily around the unilateral tweaks the White House made to deadlines to bring in as many enrollees as possible.

Even on Tuesday, Mr. Obama reminded would-be enrollees they can finish up applications they began by Monday.

Going forward, it is unclear how many enrollees will keep their coverage for the long term.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told an Oklahoma television station Monday that 80 percent to 90 percent of enrollees have paid their initial premiums, yet “lots of companies have different timetables for when their new customers have to send their first payment.”

Walter Cherniak Jr., a spokesman for Aetna’s southeast region, said it is too early to draw conclusions on how many enrollees may drop out of coverage they acquired on the exchanges.

“However, we can say that, to date, approximately 80 percent of the Aetna (and Coventry) enrollees have activated their coverage by paying their first-month premiums,” he said in an email.

Aetna acquired Coventry in 2013, and the company is selling plans both on and off the exchanges under both names.

Meanwhile, Americans who can afford health insurance — but did not make an effort to acquire it by Monday — will be penalized.

Obamacare’s “individual mandate” is one of the more unpopular aspects of the law, and those who flout it will be penalized the greater of $95 or 1 percent of their household income over the filing threshold during next year’s tax season.

“Remember, many of those people signed up under duress,” Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “In other words, their policies had been canceled and they were forced to sign up.”

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