- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Nearly 2.5 million Americans had selected health care plans on the federal marketplace through Friday, administration officials said Tuesday, portraying the Affordable Care Act’s second open enrollment as a success so far.

More than 1 million of those enrollments were from Dec. 6 to Dec. 12, suggesting a rapid pace that continued over the weekend and into Monday, the final day to sign up in order to have coverage at the beginning of next year.

The administration said it has handled the workload without the kinds of glitches in the first several weeks last year, during Obamacare’s first enrollment period.

“Our call centers and our technology have done their jobs so far,” said Andy Slavitt, a principal deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

But many unknowns remain heading into pivotal weeks for the health care overhaul. Figures released by the Health and Human Services Department on Tuesday reflect customers from only 37 states that rely on the federal exchange. It is unclear how many more signed up in the final three days leading up to Monday’s midnight deadline.

Perhaps most crucially, the administration does not have a firm calculation of how many exchange customers automatically re-enrolled in their plans instead of picking new ones. Those customers’ premiums could rise in January, or their subsidies could drop if they do not update their personal data for next year — potential headaches for an administration that is rebounding from a woeful Obamacare launch last year.

Administration officials stressed Tuesday that customers have until Feb. 15 to make changes if they are surprised by their bills.

“Open enrollment, from our view, has just begun,” Mr. Slavitt said.

The administration set a goal of 9.1 million enrollees by the end of 2015, far short of congressional estimates of 13 million.

Avalere Health, a Washington-based consultancy, estimated Tuesday the administration would exceed its lowered expectations, bringing in 10.5 million enrollees, plus or minus 1 million.

The administration said it had 6.7 million existing enrollees from the first year.

Officials said HealthCare.gov received as many as 125,000 concurrent users over the weekend and that 500,000 people had to leave contact information with federal call centers because of long wait times Monday.

In another break for consumers, some insurers gave customers additional time to pay their first premiums, which normally would be due Dec. 31.

America’s Health Insurance Plans said customers should check with their respective insurers to see what leeway they have into January.

The move is reminiscent of the easing payment deadlines last year, when the federal HealthCare.gov website had to overcome serious glitches. This time, the move is designed to stem confusion among returning customers who are adjusting to new plans, raising the risk of double billing from separate insurers.

“This is the first time anyone’s tried this — to do a system where people auto-renewed with their current insurers, but at the same time people have the opportunity to select a plan from different insurers, and we’ve got millions of people doing that all at once,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and a researcher on the health care law.

Kevin Counihan, CEO for the federal HealthCare.gov marketplace, said the exchange has been sending daily “switch lists” to insurers that reflect customers who switch issuers, but not people who choose plans within the same issuer.

This way, there should not be duplicate bills for the customer.

He said the administration will try to guide customers whose plans have been canceled by insurers into similar plans. The process requires intense outreach so customers are not caught off guard, he said.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead of us,” Mr. Slavitt said. “We’re very focused on consumers’ experience and confusion.”

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