- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Obamacare’s exchanges will attract roughly 1 million more customers than they did last year, administration officials predicted Wednesday, far shy of the level needed to put the law on firm economic footing.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell estimated 13.8 million people will buy plans in 2017 during open enrollment on the exchanges, compared to 12.7 million who initially signed up for 2016.

That’s still short of the 15 million that congressional scorekeepers predicted just a few months ago, and going into 2017, HHS expects only 3.5 million of the 10.7 million Americans who are uninsured and eligible for exchange plans to sign up, underscoring the continuing struggles to sell the health law to potential customers.

“I think slow and steady growth as they’re projecting could help to stabilize the market. But, making substantial progress in covering the remaining uninsured would likely require bigger subsidies or a stronger individual mandate, or both,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Much of the Affordable Care Act’s fate depends on November’s elections. Congressional Republicans say all that’s standing between them and repeal is a Republican in the White House. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, though, says she’ll try to expand the law if she wins.

Mr. Obama and his team would much prefer Mrs. Clinton to oversee his legacy on the issue.

“We need partners. And we are hopeful that soon, we’ll see bipartisan collaboration in Congress and the states that will help us make improvements to the law,” Mrs. Burwell said.

She said the law has already been a success, having insured more than 20 million and overcoming “doomsday predictions” that it would be a job-killer.

Yet “that doesn’t mean the road has been perfectly smooth,” she said, as insurers raise rates to make up for a sicker-than-expected customer base.

Insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Aetna have already pulled out of many exchanges, citing heavy losses, and nearly all of Obamacare’s nonprofit coops have collapsed.

The developments have left customers in some states with only one insurer to choose from in 2017 — something GOP candidates have highlighted at every turn in a contentious election year.

“It’s clear that Obamacare continues to hurt more Americans than it has helped,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, said.

Mrs. Burwell chastised the law’s detractors Wednesday and encouraged consumers to enter the exchange, saying taxpayer-funded subsidies will blunt the impact of rising premiums.

For the coming enrollment period, HHS estimates that 3.5 million uninsured people will sign up, 1.1 million will shift into the marketplace from the off-exchange plans and 9.2 million already in the exchanges will re-up.

HHS said about four in 10 Americans who are eligible for exchange coverage, yet haven’t signed up, are between the ages 18 of 34, a healthy demographic that is vital to making Obamacare’s economics work.

The administration is targeting them with email reminders and enlisting the IRS to reach out to people who paid the penalty for going uninsured or claimed an exemption, though the revenue agency on Wednesday said it still doesn’t have figures on how many filers fit into each category for the 2015 tax year.

Moving forward, some people who sign up for 2017 coverage will drop out after failing to pay their premiums.

An average of 11.4 million paying customers will be enrolled in Obamacare during 2017, a modest rise from this year’s monthly average of 10.5 million customers, HHS said.

Last year, HHS had estimated that 10 million customers would be in the exchanges at the end of 2016, but relied on the monthly average Wednesday instead of an equivalent number for the close of 2017.

“We’re not moving the goalposts, we’re just using what we believe is a more meaningful metric,” said Kathryn E. Martin, acting assistant HHS secretary of planning and evolution.

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