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Delay tactics

The Obama administration pushes back next year’s Obamacare enrollment until after the midterm elections

President Obama Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

Delay tactics

WASHINGTON—Still suffering from Obamacare’s fumbled rollout, the Obama administration is delaying the start of next year’s open enrollment period until after next fall’s key midterm elections.

This year’s enrollment period has been plagued with cancellation notices, higher premiums, and a broken HealthCare.gov website, enraging millions of Americans. With support for Obamacare freefalling in the polls, congressional Democrats are skittish about their chances for reelection in 2014.

But President Barack Obama’s latest move means that next year’s anger over canceled polices and higher insurance premiums conveniently will be unleashed after voters have gone to the polls. The old start date for 2015 enrollments had been set for Oct. 15, 2014. The new start date is Nov. 15, or 11 days after Election Day on Nov. 4.

“Clearly, President Obama does not want voters to see increased prices, more cancellations and decreased options under Obamacare before they go to the ballot box,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. “If Obamacare is so great, why are Democrats so scared of voters knowing its consequences?”

That was not the only delay of the week related to the healthcare law. The Obama administration on Friday set Dec. 23 as the new deadline to sign up for Obamacare for 2014. The old deadline required customers to pick a health plan by Dec. 15. But persistent technical glitches with HealthCare.gov have led to low levels of enrollment so far.

The deadline changes come as a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that backing for Obamacare continues to drop.

In one month, support among Democrats for the healthcare law plunged from 70 percent to 55 percent in Kaiser’s poll. Just 33 percent of all those polled had a favorable view of Obamacare, while 49 percent had an unfavorable view.

The two delays also come in the same week that the National Association of Insurance Commissioners threw cold water on Obama’s effort to ease voter anger by offering a one-year reprieve on the millions of canceled polices. The commissioners argued that Obama’s late change would undermine the marketplace and lead to higher premiums.

“In many states cancellation notices have already gone out to policyholders, and rates and plans have already been approved for 2014,” said Jim Donelon, president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “Changing the rules through administrative action at this late date creates uncertainty and may not address the underlying issues.”

At a meeting at the White House this week, insurance executives argued the president’s one-year extension would be unworkable and would lead to fewer healthy customers entering the new system, causing Obamacare marketplaces to be largely built by those who are older and sick. Without healthy people paying premiums into the new system Obamacare could be a financial sinkhole to both insurers and taxpayers.

Insurers worry that the fix would only irritate customers more by giving them a cancellation notice followed by a renewal notice only to give them another cancellation notice next year. That may not be worth having to go back and reprogram computer systems to reinstate the old policies’ rates, especially if many of the customers who would receive extension notices have already moved on. It all adds up to a headache-inducing traffic jam in the insurance system with old polices that have been given reprieves (despite not being Obamacare compliant) mixed up with new polices approved under the healthcare law.

Most see Obama’s fix as providing little more than political cover for worried Democrats who are desperate for sound bites that will help them get reelected. It also allows Democrats to blame the cancellations on the insurance companies that decline to rescind the cancellations.

Insurers do not have to abide by Obama’s move, and several states are refusing to accept the option. In the state of Washington, a Democratic and pro-Obama stronghold, Mike Kreidler, the state’s insurance commissioner and a Democrat, rejected the president’s proposed fix.

“I have serious concerns about how President Obama’s proposal would be implemented, and more significantly, its potential impact on the overall stability of our health insurance market,” said Kreidler, who predicted that 290,000 people in his state would be forced to buy new coverage next year. “I do not believe his proposal is a good deal for the state of Washington. We will not be allowing insurance companies to extend their policies.”

The mass cancellations that led to this largely unworkable fix did not come as a surprise to many in the insurance industry. In 2010 the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), which represents 1,300 insurance plans, asked the White House to reexamine the rules and limits placed on grandfathering existing polices under Obamacare. At the time the group feared what ended up happening: few policies would survive the stringent grandfathering requirements. It predicted that as little as 40 percent and as many as 67 percent of polices in the individual market would be affected. The AHIP letter warned of “disruptions”—and that’s just what happened.

Meanwhile, government officials acknowledged this week that as much as 40 percent of the HealthCare.gov website has yet to be built. The system for making payments to insurers through the Obamacare marketplaces is still unfinished. This financial management element for the website needs to be built while information technology workers still are trying to correct the problems with the front-end of the website dealing with sign-ups.

The Obama administration last month promised the website would work smoothly by the end of November. But this week Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius backpedaled on that pledge, saying, “The 30th of November is not a magic go, no-go date.”

During a trip to Miami on Tuesday Sebelius experienced the website’s problems firsthand. During a demonstration of the site in front of local reporters the screen read, “I’m sorry but the system is temporarily down.”

“Uh oh,” Sebelius exclaimed.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.


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