- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2017

Sign-ups on the Obamacare website’s main portal fell 400,000 short of last year’s total, the Trump administration said Thursday, coming in at roughly 8.8 million.

The 2018 enrollment period closed last week and all sides of the health care debate were watching to see how the first year under President Trump would go, after the president slashed the enrollment period and cut outreach.

Still, Obamacare supporters took heart in the brisk pace of enrollments, saying it exceeded their expectations. More than 4 million customers signed up in the final week on HealthCare.gov, although a sizable chunk were automatically re-enrolled in coverage after failing to pick a plan on their own.

“This is a remarkable result given the administration’s efforts to sabotage enrollment by gutting outreach, creating chaos and confusion, cutting off subsidies for low-income families, and shortening the enrollment period by six weeks,” said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Eleven states, plus D.C., run their own exchanges, and most of them are giving customers extra time to enroll — in some cases until Jan. 31. Those states will need to combine for 3.4 million enrollees to match last year’s nationwide total of 12.2 million.

Insurers were hoping for an influx of healthy customers to make the law’s unstable economics work out, but the shortfall in sign-ups on the main website suggests that hasn’t happened.

And earlier this week Republicans voted to repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate, which requires people to hold insurance, as part of their tax-cut bill.

Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said her operation focused this year on efficient outreach, saving the government money in enrollments. She said they spent just over $1 per enrollee on outreach and education for the exchanges, compared to nearly $11 per enrollee last year.

“Our goal from the beginning was to empower patients across the healthcare delivery system and make sure that Americans who chose to enroll in the exchanges had a good customer experience while making enrollment more cost efficient, and the results show that we accomplished our goal,” she said.

She also said they didn’t see any of the website failures that plagued the Obamacare rollout in 2013.

Rates are soaring on Obamacare’s exchanges because the program failed to attract enough healthy customers to balance out sick ones, who could no longer be denied coverage. Democrats said Mr. Trump made things worse by toying with the individual mandate and then canceling “cost-sharing” payments to insurers, although many consumers received super-generous premium subsidies as a result.

Looking ahead, Mr. Trump boasted Wednesday that Republicans “essentially repealed” Obamacare by scrapping the mandate, the most unpopular provision in the law, before saying it needed to be fully replaced.

Mr. McConnell, however, signaled Thursday he’d like to tackle other items, after failing to rally his conference behind GOP replacement bills over the summer.

“Well, we obviously were unable to completely repeal and replace with a 52-48 Senate,” Mr. McConnell told NPR. “We’ll have to take a look at what that looks like with a 51-49 Senate. But I think we’ll probably move on to other issues.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, objected to that view, pointing to a bill he crafted with Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana to replace Obamacare with state block grants.

“To those who believe — including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, you are sadly mistaken,” Mr. Graham said. “By eliminating the individual mandate in the tax bill we have pulled one of the pillars of Obamacare out. But by no means has Obamacare been repealed or replaced.”

He said failure to deal with Obamacare’s flaws could open the door to a liberal push for government-run health care.

Obamacare is still the law of the land,” Mr. Graham said, “and will continue to crumble which will drive up insurance costs for hard-working Americans and eventually pave the path to single-payer health care.”

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