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Administration Downplays Concern About Obamacare Marketplaces

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

December 9, 2015 -- The Obama administration on Wednesday downplayed concerns about the long-term viability of insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, presenting an upbeat assessment of the 2010 law's third open enrollment period. 

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said the agency saw a surge of interest ahead of the Dec. 15 deadline to sign up for coverage that starts on Jan. 1, with more than 65,000 people visiting the federal exchange at once and more than 1 million calls placed to a call center last week. More than 1 million new consumers have signed up for plans since open enrollment began Nov. 1, he added. The sign-up period ends Jan. 31.

Slavitt declined to specifically address an announcement by the nation's largest health insurer, UnitedHealthGroup, that it may withdraw from the health law exchanges in 2017. He said insurer participation is "incredibly high," with hundreds of plans offering thousands of options. Slavitt added officials are reluctant to discuss a specific insurer's strategy and pricing because companies will cycle in out and of the market and change prices.

"I think it's important not to get too caught up in any one particular company and their particular data point," Slavitt told reporters on a conference call, noting that he's encouraged by what he's seeing.

Kevin Counihan, CEO of the health insurance marketplaces at CMS, added that officials are seeing "high growth" and "tracking in a way that's highly encouraging," which he said bodes well for the stability and attractiveness of the market. "Individual firms will always have individual strategies," he said.

Later on the call, Slavitt similarly downplayed comments made by the CEO of Cigna that the insurer is not making money on the exchanges this year. He reiterated that the marketplace isn't dependent on any one health plan and cautioned "not to be overly swayed by any one or even a handful of companies' discussion of whether they're making money or not."

More than 25 percent of the current customers for actively renewed coverage compared to a percentage in the teens at the most comparable point last year, according to Slavitt. He said about 2 million people have searched for their doctor or prescription drug while shopping for coverage using tools phased in during this open enrollment period, citing that as evidence that consumers are making better choices and are more educated about their options.

Overall, CMS reported that 2.8 million people have selected a plan through since open enrollment began Nov. 1. The data is for the 38 states using the website for this enrollment period.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell has previously said her department aims to have 10 million people nationwide paying for coverage through the federal and state-run marketplaces set up under the 2010 law by the close of next year, up from a projected 9.1 million by the end of 2015. Slavitt described the current dynamic as a good start to reaching that goal.

Counihan warned that the special enrollment period around tax filing time that was added for consumers who were unaware of the fee for not getting coverage will not be offered again. The penalty for individuals who do not have health coverage will increase in 2016 from $325 or 2 percent of taxable income in 2015 to $695 or 2.5 percent of income, whichever is more.

"If consumers want to avoid paying the fine, they'll need to sign up for coverage by Jan. 31," Counihan said, referring to the last day of the open enrollment period.

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