The nation’s uninsured rate has fallen to its lowest point on record, the administration announced Wednesday, taking a victory lap on Obamacare just as the issue is heating up for voters.
Less than 9 percent of the population lacked coverage at the beginning of this year, down from 16 percent at the time the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
But the pace of gains is slowing as the sick were quick to sign up, while those who have forgone coverage are the healthy Americans the law needs to make the economics work.
Insurance companies have responded by pulling out of markets across the country, leaving up to a third of counties with only a single insurer offering plans on Obamacare’s exchanges. One Arizona county is in danger of having no plans at all.
Republicans responded Wednesday by proposing a carveout for those suffering from low competition, saying they should be excused from having to pay the Obamacare tax penalty for lacking insurance.
“This legislation would ensure that Arizonans are not forced to pay a penalty due to the failure of a health care system that was fatally flawed from conception,” said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who helped write the legislation. “This failed law will only continue to place undue burdens on Arizona families unless we replace it with solutions that put patients back in charge of their health care.”
The new report on health coverage said 27.3 million people lacked coverage during the first three months of 2016. That’s 1.3 million fewer individuals than in 2015 and down some 21.3 million compared to 2010.
But the report said the Obamacare exchanges are lagging behind, growing from 8.6 million customers in early 2015 to just 9.2 million this year.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it is confident that enrollment will continue to grow.
Yet the department is scrambling to mollify disgruntled insurers asking for help to cover their losses. And officials are trying to make sure customers do not game the system by waiting until they are sick to sign up.
“Could Obamacare be better? Oh, it could be a lot better. If we had 5 percent help from the Republicans — 2 percent [or] even 1 percent. But they have done nothing, nothing to help the health care delivery system in this country,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said.
The CDC report said the uninsured rate decreased significantly across all age groups from 2013 to 2016, though adults aged 25-34 were almost twice as likely as those aged 45-64 to lack health insurance — 15.9 percent versus 8.1 percent.
Younger enrollees tend to be healthier, and attracting them into the law’s exchanges once they’re forced off their parents’ plans at age 26 will be crucial to making them work.
Republican critics say the law will eventually collapse in on itself, citing the prospect of double-digit premium increases when consumers log onto the exchanges Nov. 1 — one week before Election Day — to kick off the fourth round of sign-ups.
High rates could drive healthier people away, leaving sicker people to snap up coverage and forcing premiums even higher.
“This is a death spiral, if you will, and something has to give,” Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said.
President Obama recently acknowledged the lack of choice in some regions and endorsed a government-run “public option” to compete with private plans in areas that lack competition.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also supports the public option, though health policy analysts say the politics of introducing one would make it nearly impossible.
Mr. Obama is also pushing states to expand their Medicaid insurance programs for the poor, since nearly 30 million people remain uninsured in the waning months of his tenure.