- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The administration on Tuesday cheered an “encouraging start” to Obamacare’s second round of enrollment, saying at least 7.1 million Americans have signed up for plans for 2015 on the health exchanges, and they’ve avoided the major computer glitches that marred last year’s sign-ups.

Still, it’s unclear exactly how many of those people will have coverage as of Jan. 1, since the Health and Human Services Department didn’t release statistics showing how many paid for plans, guaranteeing coverage.

“Interest in the marketplace has been strong during the first month of open enrollment,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said, acknowledging there is “a ways to go” before enrollment ends Feb. 15.

HHS said roughly 6.5 million people selected plans by Dec. 26 on the federal HealthCare.gov website that serves most states. Meanwhile, at least 600,000 selected plans on exchanges run by 13 states and the District of Columbia as of Dec. 14. That number could be much higher, because some of those states only reported new enrollments.

Millions of existing customers who didn’t pick new plans were automatically re-enrolled in their existing plans, or similar ones, in cases where their plans were no longer available — though the data released Tuesday didn’t specify exactly how many of those customers there were.

Those customers are considered one of the keys to the second go-around for the exchanges, because many of them could face higher premiums or lower subsidies due to changes in plans.

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Overall, sign-ups have gone more smoothly than last year, when software and capacity issues caused HealthCare.gov and some state exchanges to crash, and only 2.2 million people signed up for health coverage during the first three months of enrollment.

This time, about 1.8 million new customers selected a plan and 1.6 million existing customers picked new plans between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15 on the federal exchange, and mix of new and returning customers on the state-run exchanges accounted for 632,838 enrollees as of midmonth.

More customers are also slated to get taxpayer subsidies — 87 percent, up 7 percentage points compared to the first go-around.

Two large state-run exchanges, California and New York, only reported enrollment among new customers, with 118,770 and 42,982 plan selections, respectively.

Florida accounted for the largest single-state tally, at 673,255 plan selections split almost evenly between new and old customers.

The available data signal the administration is on track to meet its target of 9.1 million enrollees in 2015 — though their own goal is 4 million enrollees short of the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate.

About 8 percent of enrollees on HealthCare.gov are Hispanic, while about 7 percent were at this point last year. The agency said the self-reported ethnicity category should be used “with caution” because the information is unavailable for about a third of plan selections for both 2014 and 2015.

Despite technical improvements, the law faces new hurdles in the coming year.

Congressional Republicans will use majorities in both chambers to try to repeal all or part of the law, forcing Mr. Obama to veto their efforts, while the Supreme Court will consider a challenge that says the Obama administration unlawfully extended the law’s subsidies to states that declined to set up their own exchanges.

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

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