President Obama’s top health official told Congress Wednesday that Obamacare is making “historic” strides, even if 2016 enrollment on its web-based exchanges amounted to little more than half of what budget scorekeepers initially projected.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell encouraged House lawmakers to look beyond the 12.7 million people who signed up for private coverage between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31 — often with the help of taxpayer subsidies — and to whether the Affordable Care Act is cutting the ranks of the uninsured.
As it stands, more than nine out of every 10 Americans hold insurance.
“This is the first time in our nation’s history that this has been true,” Mrs. Burwell told the Ways and Means Committee at a hearing to discuss President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget request.
Committee Chairman Kevin Brady saw things differently, noting the Congressional Budget Office initially thought the exchanges would bring in 21 million customers for 2016.
“Poor enrollment results show Americans just aren’t buying what the president’s selling on this law,” Mr. Brady, Texas Republican, said. “In fact, millions would rather pay the punitive individual mandate tax penalty than buy Washington-designed insurance they don’t want.”
Mrs. Burwell said the U.S. is beating the CBO’s projections for how many people would be uninsured.
“In terms of how we get to that reduction, it’s good when we have a lower unemployment rate, and that often leads to fewer people being uninsured,” she said. “It’s good when it comes through the marketplace, and it also happens through Medicaid.”
She said the CBO revised its 2016 enrollment estimate down to 13 million because it had assumed that many Americans would shift from job-based insurance to the exchanges. That hasn’t happened.
Mr. Brady said the numbers cited by HHS don’t refer to people who are paying their premiums yet, so the topline enrollment number will drop off.
The chairman also chided Mrs. Burwell for failing to turn over documents that outline her agency’s justification for funding Obamacare’s cost-sharing program without explicit approval from Congress.
Mrs. Burwell said program payments were permanently authorized by part of the Affordable Care Act.
Her aides are working to produce what Congress wants, she said, although the dispute is tied up in federal court.
“I think you know this is a matter where the House of Representatives is suing the department and myself,” Mrs. Burwell said.