Obama touts health insurance enrollment spike as deadline looms

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 20, 2013 


President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference before leaving Washington for Hawaii with his family for the holidays


— President Barack Obama said Friday that more than 500,000 Americans had obtained health insurance through the HealthCare.gov website in December and “tens of thousands” were enrolling each day as the Monday deadline for selecting insurance that’s effective Jan. 1 fast approaches.

The surge in sign-ups on the troubled federal website and continued strong activity on state-run marketplaces have pushed combined enrollment under the Affordable Care Act to more than 1 million people, Obama said at his hourlong final news conference of the year.

Add to that another 800,000-plus people who’ll have coverage next year through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and, the president added, “I now have a couple million people, maybe more, who are going to have health care on Jan. 1. And that is a big deal. That’s why I ran for this office.”

While even those numbers are well below original administration projections, the December enrollment spike is a clear indication that HealthCare.gov has turned the corner on the technical problems that marred its October debut and slowed enrollment activity through November.

“All told, millions of Americans, despite the problems with the website, are now poised to be covered by quality affordable health insurance come New Year’s Day,” Obama said.

The president’s positive enrollment news came on the heels of the administration’s latest health care rule change, which allows people whose coverage was canceled because it didn’t meet new minimum standards to obtain cheaper catastrophic coverage. That usually requires policyholders to pay initial medical costs of up to $6,000 before comprehensive coverage kicks in.

Under the rule change, if that catastrophic coverage is also too expensive, individuals with canceled policies also could receive an exemption from the law’s “individual mandate,” which requires most Americans to have coverage or face a fine next year.

The change resulted from a request by six Democratic senators for greater flexibility to deal with people whose individual policies were canceled after the president repeatedly had promised Americans that the health law allowed them to keep their coverage if they liked it.

That false promise triggered a wave of public anger and political pressure that caused Obama to allow canceled policies to be extended for another year if insurers and state regulators allow it. But only about half the states decided to implement the president’s “fix,” which led the six lawmakers to seek the hardship exemption.

Administration officials don’t expect many people to request the exemption, because they estimate that fewer than 500,000 people with canceled policies will lack coverage on Jan. 1. The vast majority have been enrolled in new coverage, senior White House officials said.

Obama defended the rule change as a necessary adjustment to an unforeseen problem.

“When you try to do something this big, affecting this many people, it’s going to be hard,” he said. “And every instance, whether it’s Social Security, Medicare, the prescription drug plan under President Bush, there hasn’t been an instance where you’ve tried to really have an impact on the American people’s lives and well-being, particularly in the health care arena, where you don’t end up having some of these challenges.”

He said the numerous changes to his signature legislation didn’t negate the fact that the law was working.

“Despite all the problems, despite the website problems, despite the messaging problems, despite all that, it’s working,” Obama told reporters assembled in the White House briefing room. “And, again, you don’t have to take my word for it. We’ve got a couple million people who are going to have health insurance just in the first three months, despite the fact that probably the first month and a half was lost because of problems with the website and about as bad a bunch of publicity as you could imagine.”

The president, again, shouldered the blame for those problems, saying: “Since I’m in charge, obviously we screwed it up.”

Consumers who’ve put off selecting policies because of technical problems with the federal and state marketplaces are expected to jam exchange websites and call centers in the next few days, trying to beat the Monday enrollment deadline to have coverage in effect Jan. 1.

In anticipation, the Obama administration has added 800 staffers at its call centers, bringing the total to more than 12,000 trained customer representatives at 17 sites nationwide. After more than two months of nonstop repairs and improvements, the federal insurance marketplace portal, HealthCare.gov, can handle more than 800,000 online visitors a day and up to 50,000 simultaneous users, according to senior administration officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy.

That capacity will be sorely tested over the next few days as insurers increase their marketplace advertisements to lure last-minute policy buyers.

“We do believe that we will be able to handle the volume and capacity that we will see over the course of this approaching deadline,” officials said.

Many states also are seeing enrollments soar as the deadline approaches. California is reporting more than 15,000 new enrollments a day in qualified health plans. New York is enrolling about 5,000 per day, Kentucky is logging 3,000 and Connecticut is averaging nearly 2,000 per day, administration officials said.

Federal marketplace usage likewise has seen a significant uptick in December.

Many of the recent visitors are people who couldn’t complete their enrollment in October and November because of technical problems with HealthCare.gov. Many feared that those people would never return, out of frustration. But that apparently hasn’t been the case.

In fact, about 73 percent of recent enrollees surveyed are return visitors from October and November. The Obama administration made a concerted effort to reach these people and invite them back, sending more than 2 million emails, making 600,000 phone calls and mailing several hundred thousand letters.

To make enrollment easier for those who sign up no later than Monday, most insurers will make coverage retroactive to Jan. 1 if the first month’s premium is paid anywhere from Dec. 31 to Jan. 10. The deadlines vary by state and by insurer, so consumers are urged to contact their insurers to find out how much grace period they have.

Lesley Clark contributed to this article.

Email: tpugh@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @TonyPughDC

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