Obamacare enrollment down slightly despite drastic outreach cuts

PHOTO: The Healthcare.gov website is seen on a laptop computer, May 18, 2017, in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP FILE
The Healthcare.gov website is seen on a laptop computer, May 18, 2017, in Washington.

Despite a shortened Healthcare.gov Open Enrollment period and cuts to outreach funding by the Trump administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma announced 2018 Open Enrollment numbers that are only down slightly from last year's numbers.

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Around 8.8 million people signed up for coverage on Healthcare.gov’s federal exchanges, according to a Thursday tweet by Verma, nearly as many enrollments as for the previous year.

“Exchange open enrollment for 2018 coverage ended w/ approx 8.8M people enrolling in coverage. Great job to the @CMSGov team for the work you did to make this the smoothest experience for consumers to date. We take pride in providing great customer service,” tweeted Verma.

The Open Enrollment period ended on Friday, December 15, and health care experts had been concerned that the truncated enrollment period coupled with a 90 percent cut in advertising and spending money for outreach would have a significant negative impact on the overall number of people signing up for coverage. But these latest numbers reflect an enrollment period that could potentially be as robust as years past. At this time in 2017, 9.2 million people were enrolled in Obamacare.

Verma defended the cuts to outreach budgets and the inconvenient website maintenance times that some say disrupted the online enrollment process.

“This year CMS took a more cost effective outreach approach, spending just over $1 per enrollee on outreach and education for Exchange coverage compared to nearly $11 per enrollee last year,” tweeted Verma. “@CMSGov team worked hard to minimize disruptions for consumers this year, out of the 60 hours of regular maintenance scheduled for HealthCare.gov only 21.5 hours was used.”

“In a market that is experiencing soaring rates, I am proud of the hard work CMS put into making sure that our customers didn’t experience the website failures that were commonplace with HealthCare.gov in previous open enrollment periods,” Verma added.

The 8.8 million number only reflects sign-ups by people in the 39 states using Healthcare.gov. Some very large states that operate their own exchanges, like California, have enrollment periods that won’t finish until the end of January. People affected by Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria also have extended deadlines for enrollment. Last year 12.2 million people signed up for coverage on both state and federal exchanges.

Obamacare supporters say the numbers released by CMS today reflect the Affordable Care Act's staying power, even as President Trump and Republicans in Congress continue to work towards their goal of repealing and replacing Obamacare. The tax plan passed by Congress this week repeals the individual mandate, an unpopular aspect of the Affordable Care Act, but which health experts say keeps insurance pools healthy and costs down.

Andy Slavitt, the former Acting Administrator for CMS under Obama, who has been a critic of the Trump administration’s position on the Affordable Care Act, tweeted that he was “blown away” by the 2018 numbers.

Lori Lodes, a former Obama administration official who now runs Get America Covered, an organization that worked to provide outreach and awareness around the Open Enrollment period, was equally optimistic.

"This Open Enrollment period proves, once again, that people want and need the health and financial security that comes with health coverage through the ACA marketplaces," wrote Lodes in a blog post.

The final enrollment numbers won't be released for several months, and do not include states with extended deadlines.