- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2017

States that run their own Obamacare markets say they are seeing a surge of interest by Americans checking plans, asking questions and signing up for coverage since the 2018 enrollment period opened last week, suggesting fears of a collapse as a result of Trump administration indifference may have been premature.

Nevada said volume at its call center was up 120 percent over last year. Maryland signed up 6,900 people in the first three days, nearly double the rate from last year.

Across the border, the D.C. exchange said its website had its busiest opening day since 2013, when President Obama’s program launched.

“I’m here to tell you this thing is alive and kicking,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting member of Congress, told residents at a D.C. Health Link kickoff event Saturday that offered sign-up help, free food and a bounce house for children.

The numbers are still early and come from jurisdictions that run their own exchanges, which account for roughly a quarter of states.

Analysts had feared significant drops in enrollment this year because of President Trump’s moves to reduce the enrollment period and slash the outreach budget, as well as ongoing battles in Washington over repealing the health care law.

But mobile website versions of the exchanges have improved, returning customers are more comfortable with the program and confusion may have bred greater awareness.

Despite warnings of skyrocketing premiums, deals can be found — including lower-tier plans that, once taxpayer-funded subsidies to customers are included, are essentially premium-free.

Others may be rushing to check their options early to figure out if they can afford a plan.

“This is a confusing year for consumers with the changes in premiums due to termination of cost-sharing subsidy payments by the federal government, so it’s not too surprising that people are shopping around and reaching out for help,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “For many people eligible for premium subsidies, they may actually be able to pay less for health insurance if they shop around. For middle-class consumers, premiums are going up a lot in some cases, and I’m sure they’re searching for alternatives.”

State exchange officials say they are still taking stock of the data and gathering feedback, though they see the early returns as validation of their efforts to boost outreach amid a challenging political environment at the federal level.

Nevada Health Link spokeswoman Janel Davis pointed to the exchange’s advertising campaign, “continued support” from the office of Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and the state’s congressional delegation.

“We are finding that people need to protect themselves and their family and there are affordable health insurance plans available in the state of Nevada,” Ms. Davis said.

Washington State’s exchange has seen a 7 percent increase in web sessions and a 6 percent boost in page views, spokesman Ben Spradling said.

Covered California, which increased its outreach budget by $5 million this year, counted roughly 5,900 sign-ups on Nov. 1, which was 25 percent higher than first-day enrollment last year.

Congressional Republicans say they still want to repeal Obamacare altogether, but they were unable to put a repeal bill on Mr. Trump’s desk this year, leaving the administration to oversee a program it still wants to dismantle.

The president slashed advertising and enrollment outreach and halved the open-enrollment season on the HealthCare.gov website while suggesting the law is already dead.

He also canceled cost-sharing payments for insurers who pick up the tab for low-income customers, sparking an increase in premiums and a parallel spike in subsidies that chase rising rates. As a result, many subsidized customers will find better deals on the exchanges and those who don’t qualify for taxpayer assistance will face higher costs.

As sign-ups began Nov. 1, outside analysts said they expected nationwide enrollment to drop by at least 1 million compared with the previous sign-up season.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hasn’t released any sign-up data on the 39 states that use the federal site, HealthCare.gov.

In a statement, it said initial enrollments “went smoothly,” the website performed “optimally” and that consumers “easily accessed enrollment tools to compare plans and prices.”

CMS said it will release enrollment data periodically during the sign-up period, as it has done in the past.

Open enrollment on HealthCare.gov will end Dec. 15 — 45 days sooner than last year — though state-run exchanges set their own deadlines.

“That didn’t hurt us in D.C.,” said Ms. Norton, noting that residents can sign up until Jan. 31. “Keep trying, Donald, you ain’t getting us.”

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

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