- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2015

Roughly 6 million people selected a health plan on HealthCare.gov in time to be covered on Jan. 1, the Obama administration said Friday, boasting of a “very strong start” to the Obamacare signup season that outpaces last year’s effort to beat a crucial mid-December deadline.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said 2.4 million of the customers signed up for the first time, instead of re-upping in coverage for next year.

“The unprecedented demand and the millions of new customers who have signed up for health insurance send a clear message: The marketplaces meet an important need that had gone unanswered for too long,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said.

Obamacare’s third enrollment season began Nov. 1 and lasts until Jan. 31.

Consumers were supposed to sign up by Dec. 15 to have coverage that takes effect by the start of 2016, when the baseline Obamacare tax for those without coverage will more than double.

Yet the administration, citing “unprecedented demand,” gave customers an extra two days to sign up and still have a policy on Jan. 1.

States such as New York and Minnesota had already announced similar extensions on their state-run exchanges, where users can shop for private plans and qualify for government subsidies that make their monthly premium bills more affordable.

Administration officials noted that only 3.4 million people had signed up by the mid-December deadline last year, and that its figures only apply to 38 states that use the federal HealthCare.gov website.

A few million more enrollees, who did not actively select a plan, will be auto-enrolled in 2016 coverage before the new year.

CMS said 600,000 people signed up in 24 hours on Wednesday — the initial deadline for new-year coverage — marking the busiest day since HealthCare.gov opened in late 2013.

The federal marketplace call center received 2 million calls on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“People weren’t just shopping for coverage, they were enrolling,” CMS acting Administrator Andy Slavitt said. “For many hours, we were signing-up 11 consumers every second.”

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

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.

Healthy holdouts might be tempted to enroll because the tax penalty for shirking insurance is rising.

Mrs. Burwell reminded Americans Friday that “if someone chooses not to buy health insurance and could afford to do so,” they’ll take a hit at tax time.

The penalty for those who don’t have an exemption is either $695 or 2.5 percent of a taxpayer’s qualified income — whichever is greater. It’s an increase from $325 or 2 percent of income in 2015.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently estimated the average “individual mandate” tax for going uncovered next year will be $969 per household — a 47-percent jump from the 2015 estimated average of $661 — and the administration has pointed to the trade-off between paying the tax and getting health insurance as an incentive to enroll.

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