- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Obama administration said Tuesday that nearly 6.4 million Obamacare customers had selected or renewed plans on the federal exchange through Friday, putting it on pace to easily exceed its low enrollment bar of 9.1 million customers for 2015.

The numbers include 1.9 million newcomers to the market but not enrollment figures for states that run their own exchanges.

“While we have more to do, we’re moving in the right direction,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said.

Of the 6.4 million, 4.5 million were existing customers who had enrolled last year and who analysts are watching to see if they enroll in new plans or stick with their old ones. Those who didn’t pick a new plan were to be automatically re-enrolled in their prior plans — even if it meant a premium hike or a drop in federal subsidies for the customer.

HHS did not give an exact breakdown of those numbers Tuesday, but Mrs. Burwell said preliminary data suggests more than 60 percent were automatically re-enrolled in the prior plans. Those customers can still make changes before open enrollment ends on Feb. 15.

The exchanges are online marketplaces where people without job-based insurance can purchase private health plans, often with the help of government subsides.

The Obama administration has set a target of 9.1 million enrollees for 2015, or far short of congressional estimates of 13 million.

HHS’s figures apply only to customers on HealthCare.gov, the federal portal that serves 37 states. The states that run their own exchanges, along with the District of Columbia, aren’t included in the figures.

Mrs. Burwell said her agency plans to cover all of those in a report next week.

Some of those included in Tuesday’s enrollment were returning customers who saw their 2014 plans canceled and had to be steered to similar plans for 2015.

This year’s enrollment has gone much more smoothly than the first go-around, which was plagued by website crashes and enrollment errors.

But the administration still faces legal challenges, including a case now before the Supreme Court that argues the tax subsidies the government pays to some exchange enrollees can only go to the states that set up their own programs — not to the millions of customers in the states that use the federal exchange.

The administration contends that Congress intended to treat every state the same, so qualified Americans should get the subsidies no matter where they live.

The justices will hear arguments on March 4 and rule by June.

Mrs. Burwell would not say Tuesday if the administration is making contingency plans in the event the case does not go its way.

“Nothing has changed in terms of the subsidies and assistance people can get to have affordable care,” Mrs. Burwell said. “And the second thing is, we believe our position is the position that is correct and accurate.”

Critics have said it’s irresponsible for her not to prepare two-thirds of the country for a potentially devastating ruling. But Mrs. Burwell said she’s focused on getting through this enrollment, not on the court case.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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