- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2017

Obamacare entered its final hours of open enrollment — perhaps its last ever — under a cloud of uncertainty this week, as President Trump did little to prop up the program he’s now tasked with administering.

His administration yanked $5 million in radio and television ads meant to entice last-minute enrollees just ahead of the Tuesday deadline to sign up for coverage on the health exchanges in 2017.

The Health and Human Services Department is still answering inquiries and sending email reminders ahead of the deadline, but some fear a less-than-enthusiastic administration will depress the numbers, leaving the law struggling to live up to the goals it needs to make it economically viable.

“Research has shown that the last week of open enrollment tends to draw younger enrollees, whose participation is critical to the stability of the Marketplace and to keeping premiums affordable. The White House’s efforts to suppress enrollment will therefore weaken the risk pool, resulting in greater costs for everyone,” ranking Democrats on a trio of House committees wrote to acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran on Monday.

President Obama, who had a definite stake in shoring up his namesake law, used radio interviews and goofy web videos to draw in coveted shoppers around the deadline in previous years, yet the calendar and November election results forced him to cede the last 11 days of 2017 sign-ups to an administration that is hostile to his law and actively plotting its repeal.

Mr. Trump issued an executive order targeting Obamacare within hours of taking office, and he is relying on his pick for health secretary, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, to help him dismantle his predecessor’s signature law.

The Senate Finance Committee is poised to forward Mr. Price’s nomination to the full chamber on Tuesday.

Pro-Obamacare advocates and state officials are scrambling to fill the enthusiasm gap left by Mr. Trump, saying talk of repeal shouldn’t dissuade the uninsured from getting covered this year.

Enroll America, an organization that encourages people to sign up on the exchanges, is reminding confused customers that Obamacare remains the law of the land, as Capitol Hill Republicans figure out the way forward.

“If anything, we’ve seen that some people are eager to enroll before something changes to make sure they have coverage locked in for 2017,” Enroll America spokesman Justin Nisly said.

Yet Obamacare is grasping for attention in the frenetic first weeks of Mr. Trump’s tenure. Democrats who’d normally tout the deadline were focused on their opposition to Mr. Trump’s order on refugees and arrivals from seven Muslim-majority countries. And the president’s decision to announce his Supreme Court nominee late Tuesday will dominate the news cycle hours before the enrollment deadline.

So-called “fact mobs” from the D.C. Obamacare exchange are trying to rise above the din by shouting information about enrollment to rush-hour commuters outside Metro stations in the capital on Monday and Tuesday.

Former Obama administration officials and others are pushing back online, donating to a campaign to buy up web-advertising space so that users who google “Obamacare” will see HealthCare.gov as the first hit among their search results.

The effort by DSPolitical, a progressive politics and technology firm, is a direct response to HHS’ last week to claw back the final ad buy for radio and TV spots promoting HealthCare.gov. The agency said it wasn’t going to “continue spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars promoting a failed government program.”

Before the election, the Obama administration predicted that 13.8 million people would sign up between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31 — an increase of roughly 1 million over the 2016 sign-up period, despite widespread concerns about premiums and dwindling choices on the exchanges.

At least 11.5 million had signed up as of Christmas Eve, putting it at least within striking distance of its goal.

But the new administration’s decision to slash outreach “certainly didn’t help, and probably undermined enrollment by younger people, in turn undermining the risk pool and contributing to the Trump meme that the marketplaces are failing,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who closely tracks the health care debate.

Mr. Trump has said he thought about leaving Obamacare alone, betting it would collapse by itself and that Democrats “would come begging to do something” about it.

Obamacare’s supporters say Mr. Trump is actively trying to exacerbate the program’s troubles through executive actions, so he must own the fallout now.

“The suspension of outreach and enrollment activities prior to the closing of the 2017 open enrollment season, combined with the recent Executive Order instructing agencies to use their authority to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay provisions of the ACA,” top Democrats wrote to HHS, “creates the distinct impression that the Administration is attempting to sabotage enrollment in the Marketplaces.”

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

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