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Obama Touts 6 Million Health Law Sign-Ups

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

December 18, 2015 -- President Barack Obama said Friday that 6 million people signed up for health coverage through the federal exchange website during the health law’s third open enrollment period—the same day Congress cleared a government funding and tax package that suspends three taxes in his signature legislative achievement.

"New customers are up one-third over last year, and the more who sign up, the stronger the system becomes," Obama said at his year-end press conference. “That's good news for every American who no longer has to worry about being just one illness or accident away from financial hardship.”

Thursday was the last day for individuals in the 38 states that use to sign up for coverage that begins Jan. 1, after federal officials extended the deadline by two days in a response to a surge in demand. Open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act began Nov. 1 and ends on Jan. 31, 2016.

Obama is expected to sign the package (HR 2029) the Senate cleared Friday that funds the federal government for fiscal 2016 and addresses a number of tax policies, despite provisions taking aim at the health law. The legislation includes temporary suspensions of three taxes that helped offset the cost of the law’s coverage expansion: a pause for the 2.3 percent tax on medical devices from 2016 to 2017, a two-year delay of the "Cadillac" tax on high-cost employer health plans until 2020 and a one-year suspension of the tax on insurers in 2017.

Both the Cadillac tax delay and the health insurance tax pause topped the list of provisions that Democrats claimed as wins in a fact sheet circulated by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., highlighted suspensions of all three taxes in a Thursday press release entitled "The House is Dismantling Obamacare."

Officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) characterized the sign up numbers as evidence of the vibrancy of the marketplace on a call with reporters before Obama spoke. Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt said the 6 million figure compares to about 3.4 million people last year who signed up for coverage that began Jan. 1. The number of sign-ups may be higher than the number who end up paying for coverage and getting covered.

About 2.4 million of the 6 million sign-ups were new customers, Slavitt said, while about 3.6 million people returned to the exchange to actively re-enroll. That figure excludes individuals who will be automatically renewed in coverage and those who signed up for coverage through the state-run exchanges.

On Monday and Tuesday, Slavitt reported that the call center took more than 2 million calls and more than 3.7 million people visited He said 11 consumers were signing up every second for many hours on Tuesday, which he called the busiest day in history with about 600,000 sign-ups.

With such high traffic, Slavitt said the federal website had an average two-minute wait time during the busiest parts of the day on Monday and Tuesday, with no lag on Wednesday or Thursday. Kevin Counihan, CEO of the health insurance marketplace at CMS, also said the call center would have needed 72,000 customer service representatives to handle the demand within the normal answering speed goal.

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