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Administration Touts Health Law Momentum, but Many Will Be Auto-Enrolled

By Rebecca Adams, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

December 10, 2014 -- With an important deadline looming, nearly 1.4 million people have signed up for or renewed coverage through the insurance marketplaces established by the health care law.

But the numbers indicate that a large portion of people who already have a marketplace plan will stay with their current arrangement, even though Obama administration officials warn that most people could save money if they switch plans.

Millions of people enrolled in a marketplace plan may be unaware that their costs could go up in January.

About 52 percent of the sign-ups so far during the enrollment period that started Nov. 15 are people renewing coverage, and 48 percent are new customers. The people who renewed since November represent less than 11 percent of the 6.7 million people were enrolled in a marketplace plan in October.

If people do not change plans and update their information by Dec. 15, they will be renewed in their current plan or a similar plan at the same tax subsidy level. One risk is that people may face increases in their costs unnecessarily. Another is that their tax subsidy level could be wrong.

If the number of people choosing a plan this week continues to grow by about the same amount as last week, by Friday more than 5.6 million people who are currently enrolled will still need to come back to the website by the end of Monday to choose a plan or face auto-enrollment.

Charles Gaba, a supporter of the law whose projections for enrollment have been followed closely, predicted in a phone interview that enrollment will tick up as it did for deadlines last year. He projected that about 3.5 million to 4 million people will be auto-renewed because they will not take action by Monday.

The auto-renewal deadline affects everyone covered by a marketplace plan, regardless of whether their benefits kicked in during January, May, or any other month this year. Previously, plans in the individual market typically lasted for a year.

Administration officials also are urging new consumers to pick a plan so that their benefits can start in January. If people wait until later in December to sign up, their benefits won’t start until Feb. 1.

Health and Human Services (HHS) officials noted that the number of people choosing plans last week was 33 percent higher than the first week of the open enrollment season that started Nov. 15.

“Open enrollment’s momentum is building, and I’ve seen that firsthand as I traveled the country and talked to people from Florida to New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Texas,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a blog post. “With less than a week left to sign up for coverage that starts January 1, we’re encouraging new and returning consumers to visit”

More than 2.5 million people had filled out applications since November but have not gone on to pick a plan. After people choose a plan, they need to pay their first month’s premium in order to be enrolled.

State-run marketplaces are not included in the HHS count. Neither are Oregon and Nevada, which switched from a state-run website to the federal website this year.

A handful of states have deadlines that are later than Dec. 15 for auto-renewal and benefits that start in January.

Separately, California officials in a call with reporters earlier in the day said they are pleased with the progress in their state-run exchange. The interest this year “far exceeds” the number of sign-ups during this point of the sign-up period last year, said Peter Lee, the executive director of the state marketplace, which is known as Covered California.

Almost 50,000 Californians selected a plan in the two-and-a-half weeks between Nov. 15 and Dec. 3, said Lee. Last year, only about 31,000 people chose a plan during the entire first month of the sign-up period, he said.

The California data only includes new customers. Lee said that he will release more statistics, including those for renewals, in January.

With the Dec. 15 deadline approaching for people who want coverage on Jan. 1, Lee predicted “continued and even growing interest in enrollment.”

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