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HHS: Enrollees in High-Risk Pools Grow to 18,000

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

May 5, 2011 -- A report to be released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will show that more than 18,000 Americans now have signed up for the high-risk pools created in the health care law, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told lawmakers.

Sebelius said that there has been a 50 percent increase in enrollment in recent months as more Americans learn about the program, intended to enroll sick people who can't otherwise obtain affordable insurance. Sebelius' comments came during testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Reports on enrollment numbers are made quarterly and will be released Friday.

Sebelius also said that HHS is exploring ways to make the program more affordable and accessible, possibly including lower premiums and easier eligibility standards. The health care law, however, bars people from joining unless they have been uninsured for at least six months, a big hurdle for some individuals.

The Obama administration's Preexisting Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) began operating in July 2010 after being enacted in the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152). The high-risk pools are temporary, scheduled to end when the health care law goes fully into effect in 2014 and health insurers can no longer discriminate against people with preexisting conditions.

Republicans have sharply criticized the program as duplicative and wasteful since states also have high-risk pools, and they say it's not performing as expected. Initial estimates from experts had been that 375,000 Americans would sign up in the program's first year. The law makes $5 billion available for the program through 2014 but administration officials have said they'd spent less than $100 million as of February.

Sebelius acknowledged the numbers are still not high enough. "It's encouraging to see that more people that need health insurance are getting it but we know that's not enough," she said.

HHS now is actively reaching out to groups such as the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association to spread information about the program to their members, and people who apply for disability benefits also receive information. For many sick people these plans provide access to lifesaving treatments so it's vital to get them enrolled, said Sebelius.

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