- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Obama administration and its allies are brushing aside talk of Obamacare repeal as they barrel ahead with a pivotal 2017 enrollment season, urging customers to sign up by Thursday to be covered by Jan. 1 and avoid penalties in the new year, even as Republicans promise relief from the law’s mandates in concert with President-elect Donald Trump.

The District of Columbia’s Obamacare website greets customers with a pop-up message that says the recent presidential election “doesn’t impact your ability to enroll in affordable quality health insurance for 2017.”

President Obama used his latest weekly address to sell his signature health law to fence-sitters, saying that Republicans intent on repealing his law should improve the existing system instead and that “one of the best ways to do that is make sure that you’re in it.”

Enroll America, a White House ally that works to enroll customers in Obamacare’s web-based exchanges, said the same numbers of people — if not more — are seeking appointments with in-person assisters as last year.

“Right now, nothing has changed,” said Jennifer Sullivan, vice president for operations, noting that they tell wary consumers: “Your concerns are valid and there is a lot of uncertainty right now, but one thing we can guarantee is you can enroll in health coverage.”

GOP leaders have said that writing budget instructions to fast-track legislation that guts Obamacare will be their first piece of business in January, after a November election in which voters suddenly handed Republicans the keys to health reform.

Too many Americans, they say, are suffering from rising premiums and dwindling choices under the law and need quick relief.

“When Congress reconvenes, we will begin repairing the damage by passing the legislative tools that are necessary to repeal Obamacare. We will deliver on our promise to the American people,” the office of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Wednesday in a blog post, noting there will be a “stable transition period” to new reforms.

Mr. Obama is using his final weeks in office to make the GOP’s task more difficult, urging millions to log onto web-based insurance exchanges and place his signature law on firmer footing in 2017.

He recently joined comic actor Bill Murray in a web video to promote the law — particularly to young, healthy enrollees who are critical to making Obamacare’s economics work, after a rush of sicker customers in the early rounds prompted insurers to flee some exchanges or request double-digit rate hikes.

“Boosting enrollment was always critical for the Obama administration to help stabilize the ACA marketplaces, but it’s taken on greater significance with efforts to repeal and replace the law. The more people who are enrolled, the harder it is to take coverage away from people,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

The administration is highlighting the law’s main prod — the “individual mandate” tax penalty for remaining uninsured — to boost its numbers ahead of the Dec. 15. deadline.

“The consequences of missing Thursday night’s deadline affect more than your well-being: You could pay a penalty of $695 or more for going uninsured,” the federal HealthCare.gov exchange said this week in an email alert to customers who haven’t signed up for 2017.

Republicans haven’t detailed their plan to bridge millions of newly covered Americans over to a new program, or finalized plans for keeping popular aspects of Mr. Obama’s reforms — such as ensuring that sick customers can get covered — without the mandate requiring healthier people to sign up.

The House GOP’s “Better Way” blueprint, however, would entice consumers into coverage by allowing them to shop across state lines and use tax credits on any plan they want, instead of ones that meet minimum coverage requirements from Washington.

As it stands, more than 4 million Obamacare customers selected a plan on the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 39 states during Nov. 1-Dec. 10 — roughly 250,000 more plan selections than in first 40 days of last year’s sign-up period.

“Momentum is building,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said, referring to the expected rush before the Dec. 15 deadline to hold coverage on New Year’s Day.

Open enrollment lasts until Jan. 31, or 11 days after Mr. Trump is set to be sworn as president, underscoring the transitional nature of this sign-up season.

Ms. Sullivan, at Enroll America, said the organization is trying to “not overstep or over-promise” on what may happen down the road.

In some cases, it’s had to dispel falsehoods — for instance, some potential enrollees think they will be grandfathered or have an ironclad right to their Obamacare coverage, even if Congress decides to scrap the law.

Though that isn’t the case, they’re urging people to enroll for 2017.

“If people need health insurance, it’s going to be there for January, probably for February and probably for all of 2017,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who closely tracks the health care debate. “So I don’t see any logic in saying, ‘I’m not going to sign up.’”

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