- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Obama administration entered the final week of 2016 Obamacare enrollment within striking distance of its low-bar target, with officials announcing Wednesday they’ve got nearly 9 million sign-ups in hand on the federal HealthCare.gov website.

Millions more have likely enrolled in the states that set up their own exchanges, meaning the government is poised to meet its goal of 10 million paying customers for 2016, and could reach the 13 million sign-ups that budget analysts estimated.

President Obama and his chief aides are doing everything they can to herd more people into the marketplace before Sunday’s deadline to get covered and avoid paying the “individual mandate” penalty that starts at roughly $700.

“The clock is ticking with just four days left before January 31, the final enrollment deadline for 2016 health coverage,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Wednesday. “We are focused on making sure people know that financial help is available, the deadline is fast approaching and that we’re here to help them enroll — so that they don’t risk having to pay a penalty of $695 or more for not having health insurance.”

That penalty for lacking coverage in 2016 is more than double the $325 minimum tax shirkers had to pay the IRS if they went without coverage last year.

The penalty can also run much higher than the minimum, with taxpayers socked 2.5 percent of their income above the filing threshold this year.

Some say the message doesn’t seem to be getting through, despite federal efforts.

“I don’t think people are aware, and it doesn’t matter what education level you have, it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in,” said Mila Kofman, executive director of the D.C. exchange. “There is not as much awareness as there should be.”

Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office said the Affordable Care Act has struggled to grab a foothold overall, forcing scorekeepers to slash their estimate for this year’s enrollment from 21 million to 13 million on the law’s web-based exchanges, where customers can shop for private plans.

The updated projections came as part of the CBO’s 2016 budget outlook, and confirm the administration’s own dim estimates of how many people would take advantage of the new marketplace. Even before the CBO’s downgrade, HHS set a modest goal of 10 million paying customers by the end of 2016.

Earlier this month, HHS reported that 11.3 million customers had selected plans nationwide — roughly 8.6 million from HealthCare.gov and 2.7 million from exchanges run by 12 states and D.C. — as of Jan. 9.

The federal tally has increased by 300,000 since then, marking a much slower pace of growth in the weeks since an end-of-year deadline that created “unprecedented demand,” according to HHS.

Enrollees flocked to the exchanges in the final days of Obamacare’s first two rounds, however, so the administration will need a similar surge to meet or exceed the CBO’s mark.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kofman is celebrating a better-than-expected year at D.C. Health Link.

As of mid-January, the city-run exchange had automatically renewed plans for 14,108 people, while 2,594 actively shopped for this year’s coverage. It also brought in 3,831 new customers for 2016 — a tally that sounds tepid but enthused officials in the District, which has a relatively low uninsured rate and overall population that tends to fluctuate widely.

Ms. Kofman said official figures on the uninsured tend to be outdated and include undocumented residents, who aren’t eligible for exchange coverage, so it’s hard to pin down her target audience.

“I was shocked,” she said. “My expectation was about 1,000 new customers, because I’m just not sure where the new customers were coming from.”

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

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