Affordable Care Act New Subscribers

By: Robert Pear (NY Times) December 2015

WASHINGTON — A million new customers have signed up for health insurance during the Affordable Care Act’s third open-enrollment season, Obama administration officials said Wednesday. They said it showed a widespread desire for coverage under the law.

The officials brushed aside reports of rising premiums and deductibles and concerns expressed by UnitedHealth Group and other insurers that say they are losing money in the new online insurance marketplaces, or exchanges. And they said that the call center for the federal marketplace was being deluged with calls from consumers eager to sign up.

“We are now seeing a surge of interest as we get closer to the deadline,” said Andrew M. Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the federal marketplace. “Each day has been bigger than the day before.”

Consumers need to sign up by next Tuesday to ensure coverage that takes effect on Jan. 1. The open enrollment period runs through Jan. 31. People who go without insurance next year may be subject to tax penalties of $695 a person or more, although some may be able to qualify for hardship exemptions.

Since the third annual open enrollment season began on Nov. 1, officials said, 2.8 million people have selected plans in the federal marketplace, and one million of them are new customers. The others already have coverage and are renewing it or switching to different plans. More than 800,000 people selected plans in the fifth week of open enrollment, from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5.

Of the 2.8 million sign-ups through the federal exchange this fall, officials said, about half come from five states: Florida (598,279), Texas (317,094), North Carolina (192,760), Georgia (151,600), and Pennsylvania (146,975).

Questions addressed to federal officials in a telephone conference call on Wednesday illustrated the concerns that have been voiced by consumers in many states.

A journalist from Oklahoma asked about insurance rate increases exceeding 30 percent for next year. A journalist from Tennessee asked about the collapse of a nonprofit insurance cooperative in that state. A journalist from New Mexico asked about a decision by the local Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan to pull its individual insurance products off the marketplace in 2016, after the state denied its request for a rate increase of more than 50 percent.

Kevin J. Counihan, the chief executive of the federal insurance marketplace, said federal subsidies, in the form of tax credits, would make insurance affordable throughout the country. “Eight in 10 consumers can find coverage for less than $75 a month after those subsidies,” Mr. Counihan said.

Mr. Slavitt said he saw evidence that “consumers are making better choices” this year, considering not just prices, but also deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, as well as coverage for the doctors, hospitals and prescription drugs they use.

New tools on HealthCare.gov allow consumers to get an estimate of their total out-of-pocket costs under different health plans and to search for specific doctors and prescription drugs. Two million people have used these tools while shopping for coverage through the federal marketplace, Mr. Slavitt said.

Asked about the financial concerns of UnitedHeath and other insurance companies, Mr. Slavitt insisted, “The marketplace is strong, it’s vibrant and it’s growing.”

The marketplace is not dependent on any one insurer, Mr. Slavitt said, adding, “I would just caution you not to be overly swayed by any one or even a handful of companies’ discussion of whether they are making money or not.”

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, has predicted a small increase in enrollment, so that 10 million people will have insurance through the federal and state exchanges at the end of 2016, up from 9.9 million in June of this year.

Enrollment is sure to surpass that level in the next few months. But the experience of the last two years showed significant attrition, as people lost marketplace coverage because they failed to pay their share of premiums or because they obtained coverage from other sources, such as through their employers.

NY Times