- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2014

This time, the Obamacare deadlines actually mean something.

New and returning enrollees have until late Monday to sign up for health insurance on the federal online exchange and be covered by Jan. 1 — a hard deadline and stark turnaround from last year, when glitches on HealthCare.gov blurred pre-Christmas deadlines.

Instead of fretting over a website, the administration is scouring for new enrollees while it urges millions of existing customers to shop for bargains. That way, critics can’t cry foul when some customers do nothing and see their premiums rise.

Officials also pleaded with returning shoppers to update their personal information for 2015.

Otherwise, “you may not get all of the financial assistance that you actually deserve and are able to get,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said.

People who re-enroll on autopilot can still revisit the marketplace and make changes before the sign-up season ends Feb. 15, but Mrs. Burwell said “it’s best that people do it now, before Dec. 15.”

SEE ALSO: House GOP won’t force Obamacare on staffers

The official deadline to acquire coverage for Jan. 1 will hit at midnight on the Pacific coast, or 3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday.

The federal exchange known as HealthCare.gov serves 37 states that do not operate their own portals. Among the rest, large state exchanges in California and New York are using the Dec. 15 deadline, too, while some are giving their residents extra time.

Idaho’s new state portal offered a last-minute reprieve to customers still mulling their options, deciding Friday to push back the deadline for selecting a plan to Dec. 20, although customers must still apply for subsidies by Monday.

Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington state are giving customers until Dec. 23 to sign up and pay, while Marylanders have until Thursday.

Obamacare’s second-ever round of open enrollment began Nov. 15 and has gone smoothly compared to last year’s, when tech glitches on HealthCare.gov thoroughly embarrassed the White House and required a high-profile rescue mission.

Administration officials have projected that 9.1 million people will hold coverage through the federal and state-run exchanges in 2015 — far short of congressional estimates of 13 million enrollees.

More than 1.3 million new and returning customers had signed up through the federal marketplace through Dec. 5, a number that does not account for enrollment in exchanges run by 13 states and the District, which likely add hundreds of thousands more to the tally.

Hoping to wrangle last-minute shoppers for the Jan. 1 deadline, Mrs. Burwell met with religious leaders Friday at United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. Churches are key allies because potential enrollees express their concerns to pastors and others, she said.

“When someone has a medical issue, they know it as well,” Mrs. Burwell told reporters after the meeting.

Almost simultaneously, President Obama called into ESPN radio’s “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd to talk sports and make a pitch for his health overhaul.

The private sector is also getting into the game ahead of Monday’s deadline.

HealthCare.com, a website that allows people to compare plans and prices both on and off the exchanges, said it has seen a 57-percent increase in the number of times it successfully referred a user to one of its health insurance partners — certified agencies, call centers, Web-based entities or actual insurance companies — from three weeks prior to the Nov. 15 kickoff to the most recent full week of shopping.

“This growth demonstrates the importance of giving consumers multiple choices to find an affordable health insurance plan and enroll,” HealthCare.com CEO Jeff Smedsrud said.

Despite the rush, Mr. Obama’s reforms face an uncertain future in the new year. The Supreme Court will hear a case that threatens to cut off subsidies to Obamacare customers in two-thirds of the nation, and Republican majorities in Congress will try to legislatively dismantle the law’s most unpopular provisions.

As it stands, Republican critics are fostering discontent with how the law passed more than four years ago. House investigators said Friday they will legally compel Obamacare “architect” Jonathan Gruber to cough up documents relating to his work on the health law and how much he was paid.

Oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican, said he followed through on a threat to subpoena the economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology after he received unsatisfactory answers at a hearing Tuesday on a series of comments by Mr. Gruber that fed into Republicans’ belief that Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act under a cloud of secrecy.

“This week, Dr. Gruber repeatedly refused to answer several key questions, including the amount of taxpayer funds he received for his work on Obamacare,” Mr. Issa said. “The American people deserve not just an apology, but a full accounting, which Dr. Gruber must provide.”

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