- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2015

The administration launched an all-out blitz Monday to boost Obamacare sign-ups, hoping to lure last-minute customers ahead of the deadline to have coverage in place by New Year’s Day.

Open enrollment technically lasts until Jan. 31, but customers must sign up by Tuesday to have their plans go into effect by the start of 2016, when the baseline Obamacare tax for those without coverage will more than double from $325 to $695.

President Obama and his top aides are hoping to score an upset and attract millions of new customers, calculating that the ever-stiffer penalty will push consumers to overlook reports of rising premiums in many states.

“Remember: You must enroll by December 15 for coverage starting January 1,” the administration said in an email blast to registered HealthCare.gov customers with the subject line, “Urgent: Deadline tomorrow.”

The administration says many of the holdouts could buy insurance for premiums of $75 a month or less, once Affordable Care Act subsidies are added into the mix.

The administration has estimated that about 10.5 million uninsured people remain eligible to buy plans on the health exchanges.

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Yet Mr. Obama himself has said it will be harder than ever to find people who didn’t sign up during the first two rounds, and the law faces a series of fiscal challenges.

Customers in some parts of the country say they’re suffering from “sticker shock,” as insurers struggle to attract the type of young and healthy customers who keep premiums in check.

Half of Obamacare’s nonprofit co-op plans have failed, while the nation’s largest insurer, UnitedHealth, has said it is losing money on the exchanges and may drop out by 2017.

But the administration said sign-ups are moving briskly, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reporting “unprecedented” demand Monday. In some cases, call centers asked some customers to leave their contact information so that representatives could call them back later.

“The energy is outpacing where we were last year ahead of the December 15 deadline,” CMS spokeswoman Lori Lodes said.

The penalty for those who go without insurance and don’t have an exemption is either $695 or 2 percent of a taxpayer’s qualified income — whichever is greater. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently estimated many will pay that higher amount, and the average tax for all those who violate the “individual mandate” will be $969 per household — a 47-percent jump from 2015.

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Officials say there are no plans to bend the end-of-year deadline, so customers who miss it would not be covered until Feb. 1 at the earliest.

“If you want coverage starting on January 1, you’ve got sign up by Dec. 15,” Mr. Obama says in YouTube clips aimed at New Orleans; Nashville, Tennessee; and Great Falls, Montana.

They are among 20 cities competing to drive the greatest share of eligible residents into the exchanges. The winner gets a visit from the president himself, and so far Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia are leading the pack.

The Health and Human Services Department has set a modest goal of 10 million paying customers for 2016, and it appears on track to hit its target after the end-of-year rush of new customers and automatic reenrollments for existing customers who didn’t shop for new plans.

Through Dec. 5, about 2.8 million customers had selected a 2016 plan on HealthCare.gov, a figure that doesn’t include large states with their own exchanges, like California and New York.

Roughly 1 million of them were new customers, as opposed to those looking to re-up in coverage for the new year.

Consumers who do not sign up by the Jan. 31 will only be able to sign up after a major life change, such as getting married or the loss of another source of health coverage.

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

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