- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Trump administration says it has pulled the plug on a batch of Obamacare ads. The move comes in the final days of 2017 enrollment, a critical period for the law.

Customers still have until Jan. 31 to shop for private plans, often with the help of taxpayer-funded subsidies, on the federal HealthCare.gov website that serves 39 states without their own insurance exchanges, despite GOP plans to scrap the law and replace it with “market-oriented” reforms.

But the new administration’s decision to pull back on outreach underscores how serious President Trump is about erasing his predecessor’s signature law.

“The federal government has spent more than $60 million promoting the open enrollment period,” an agency spokesman said. “HHS has pulled back roughly $5 million of the final placement in an effort to look for efficiencies where they exist.”

The development was first reported by Politico, which quoted officials from the prior administration as saying the ads were already paid for.

An HHS spokesman told Politico the move is a cost-cutting measure, though the report says the prior administration already paid for the ads.

Former Obama administration officials reacted angrily to the report, saying HealthCare.gov had been outperforming last year’s signups — 8.8 million as of Jan. 14 compared to 8.7 million last year — and that the final week usually sees a crush of customers seeking coverage.

Though Mr. Trump signed an executive order signaling he will weaken the law where he can, the “individual mandate” requiring Americans to get covered or pay a tax is still in effect.

“The Trump Administration’s outrageous decision tonight to sabotage open enrollment will mean coverage could cost more next year and insurers could drop out of the marketplace,” former HealthCare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan said. “We know that more young people enroll during the final days of Open Enrollment, but they need to be reminded of the January 31 deadline.”

“Having health insurance is still law of the land,” he added. “If the president and Republicans in Congress want to change that, they should come up with a plan and show it to the American people, rather than depriving Americans of the chance to sign up for coverage and financial assistance they remain eligible for.”

Andy Slavitt, the former director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, took to Twitter to blast “very misguided actions which purposely hurt ACA consumers & cost insurance companies money. Disappointing.”

Lori Lodes, who ran communications for CMS during prior signups periods, said the final days of enrollment typically attracted the young and healthy people critical to making Obamacare’s economics work.

As it stands, premiums on the exchanges are rising because not enough healthy enrollees entered the exchange in earlier rounds.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has repeatedly bolstered his case for repeal by saying the program is in a “death spiral” and cannot be saved, though health policy analysts have disagreed with that view, saying improvements are needed but that the market is not in crisis.

Obamacare’s supporters late Thursday argued the GOP will now be responsible if enrollment falls short of expectations.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence told Capitol Hill Republicans on a retreat in Philadelphia that repealing and replacing Obamacare remains their No. 1 priority in the new year.

Various Republicans have produced replacement plans, though the party has yet to coalesce around a unified plan.

For now, the party is banking on a three-pronged strategy. It plans to gut the law by late February or early March by using a fast-track budget process that allows it to avoid a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, while replacing as much of the law as it can on that bill.

Republicans will then rely on the Trump administration to lift some of Obamacare mandates and rules during the transition to piece-by-piece replacement bills, although that legislation will require votes from Senate Democrats.

HealthCare.gov is still up and running. Its homepage encourages people to get enrolled, and it sent an email alert early Thursday to people who hold an online account but hadn’t enrolled for the 2017 plan year.

Its Twitter account, however, seems to signal a wind down. After multiple tweets in each of the last few days about getting enrolled, its only post on Thursday was a retweeted message about flu shots.

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

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