- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The latest round of Obamacare sign-ups is running ahead of pace compared to a year earlier, the administration said Tuesday, providing backup for Democrats who say the law isn’t spiraling out of control and only needs fixes, not a full repeal.

Some 11.5 million people had picked plans on the insurance exchanges as of Christmas Eve, nearly 300,000 more than in 2015, the Health and Human Services Department said.

HHS said that level of demand shows a solid program, contradicting Republicans who say Obamacare is beginning a death spiral of falling enrollment and soaring prices.

“Today’s data show that this market is not merely stable, it’s actually currently on track for growth. So while they were always nonsense, today we can officially pronounce death spiral claims dead,” HHS senior adviser Aviva Aron-Dine said.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, though, said the law already has failed and Americans are reeling from spiking premiums and a lack of choices — a third of counties will see just one insurer offering plans on their exchange this year.

Mr. Ryan said Republicans are “on a rescue mission to save the families who are getting caught up in the death spiral that has become Obamacare.”

He also revealed a shift in strategy, saying Republicans will try to replace as much of Obamacare as they can in conjunction with a fast-track repeal process that’s under way.

“We’re going to use every tool at our disposal, through legislation, through regulation, to bring replace concurrent along with repeal, so that we can save people from this mess,” he said.

President-elect Donald Trump urged Republicans to speed up the replacement process in an interview Tuesday in The New York Times, though he seemed confused about the upcoming schedule. He said he is eyeing a repeal vote “probably some time next week” and said “the replace will be very quickly or simultaneously, very shortly thereafter.”

Congressional Republicans had been eyeing a slightly longer time frame, though initial votes on a budget that would set up a later repeal are expected in the coming days.

Democrats and President Obama say Republicans should work to fix the law instead of pursuing their thorny “repeal-and-delay” strategy.

They say the law could be fixed by adding a government-run plan, or “public option,” to improve competition in the exchanges, or boosting the taxpayer-funded subsidies to entice more people to sign up.

Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, said HHS’ enrollment update was a mixed bag for the law’s supporters. The administration might struggle to hit its own goal of 13.8 million sign-ups by Jan. 31, and the share of economically vital adults aged 18-34 signing up has flatlined at 26 percent compared to last year.

Yet the market isn’t careening toward collapse, he said, and insurers should be able to make money this year.

“Amid tremendous uncertainty about the future of the health law and big premium increases, marketplaces sign-ups are holding steady. There are no signs of the marketplaces collapsing or an insurance death spiral,” Mr. Levitt said.

“The bigger premium increases for 2017 will allow insurer revenue to better match their costs,” he added. “With no signs of enrollment deteriorating, that should allow more insurers to turn a profit on marketplace business.”

A separate Kaiser study on Tuesday underscored the political risks of upending the exchanges amid the GOP’s push to transition to a new plan.

About 55 percent of those enrolled in Obamacare’s exchanges — 6.3 million of the 11.5 million — live in Republican congressional districts, compared to 5.2 million represented by a Democrat.

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