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HHS Touts Historically Low Uninsured Rate

By Erin Mershon, CQ Roll Call

September 7, 2016 -- The uninsured rate in the U.S. dropped to a historic low of 8.6 percent in the first quarter of the year, according to new government data.

The Obama administration cheered the achievement Wednesday, calling it "undeniable" proof of the law's success in improving access to care. The data, from the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) annual National Health Interview Survey, show 1.3 million more people gained insurance between the first quarter of 2015 and the same period in 2016. That difference, however, was not statistically significant, according to the CDC.

Overall, the survey shows 21.3 million people have gained insurance since 2010, when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act.

"Our country's march toward improving access, quality, and affordability in health care goes on, and today's numbers show that the Affordable Care Act is continuing to drive historic progress," said Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Sylvia Mathews Burwell in a statement.

The CDC survey also notes that gains in private coverage for adults 18 to 64 that came through or state-based marketplaces between 2015 and 2016 were not statistically significant.

Trying to Improve the Risk Pool
The improvement in access to health care comes as the Obama administration is still struggling to improve both affordability and competition on the health insurance marketplaces created by the law. This year, several major insurers, including UnitedHealth Group and Aetna Inc., have announced plans to withdraw from many of the counties in which they were selling plans, citing the financial instability of the new insurance markets.

Republicans have pounced on the instability, highlighting the dropouts as well as double-digit premium increases as signs the law is failing. On Wednesday, six Republican senators led by John McCain of Arizona introduced legislation that would make anyone living in a county with one or fewer insurance companies on its exchange exempt from the law's individual mandate penalties. Recent analyses have suggested as many as one-third of U.S. counties will be in such a situation in 2017.

As part of a series of efforts to improve that financial stability, the Obama administration on Tuesday announced plans to test a new way of screening people who sign up for plans during some of the law's special enrollment periods.

Insurance companies have pressured the administration and Congress to consider tightening the applicability of special enrollment periods for years, arguing that they allow people to wait to sign up for insurance coverage until they get sick. The administration has already eliminated several of the options for special enrollment coverage and added a documentation requirement to others.

Now, beginning in 2017, the administration will test the effects of asking people to verify their eligibility before they sign up for coverage.

They want to "valuate the impact of pre-enrollment verification of special enrollment period eligibility on compliance, enrollment, continuity of coverage, the risk pool, and other outcomes," according to guidance from the administration.

The scope of the pilot has not yet been determined, but insurers are already pressing for it to be expanded nationwide.

"CMS is taking steps to move forward on a major problem facing consumers and health plans in the Exchange," said Clare Krusing, spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans. "There needs to be broader application and use of a pre-enrollment verification across the board."

The administration said in the document that since it added the verification requirements for special enrollment periods earlier this year, it saw a 15 percent drop in those enrollments.

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