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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer. katherine molé mfa ... art director
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Obama to Delay 'Firm' enrollment past March 31st. Surprise!
Though the Obama administration repeatedly insisted that its March 31 enrollment deadline for Obamacare’s first year was “firm,” many observers predicted that the administration would combat lagging sales of health law-sponsored insurance plans by extending that deadline. Sure enough, on Tuesday night the White House indicated that it would be postponing that drop date in order to squeeze as many people as possible into the program.
Obamacare was set up to last for six months; instead it will last for 6.5 months. Unlike some of the clearly illegal extensions and delays that the White House has put forth, this one appears to be
legal; the text of the Affordable Care Act doesn’t specify how long the open enrollment period should be, leaving that task to the regulators at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
CMS: ‘We don’t actually have the statutory authority’ to extend deadline
But that’s not what the Obama administration was saying until now. On March 11, Julie Bataille, the appropriately-surnamed spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that “we have no plans to extend the open enrollment period. In fact, we don’t actually have the statutory authority to extend the open enrollment period in 2014.” On March 12, when Rep. Kevin Brady of the House Ways and Means Committee asked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: “Are you going to delay the open enrollment beyond March 31st?” Sebelius replied, “No, sir.”
However, in that same testimony, Sec. Sebelius gave herself the loophole that she is now using to push back the deadline. “We have made it clear that if, through no fault of their own, they were unable to enroll, that eligibility extends to a delayed enrollment period, and they will have a special enrollment period we have the authority to grant.”
But the administration isn’t going to bother with those caveats in the end. Reports Goldstein, people who haven’t signed up by March 31 will be able to “rely on an honor system” to attest that “they tried to enroll before the deadline…the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth.”
Insurers continue to be frustrated
It’s yet another improvisation by the administration, designed to get as many people under the Obamacare tent as possible, to ensure that the law is impervious to repeal. But the upshot is that people who haven’t bought insurance, and recently fallen ill, can now buy coverage at the old rate. So while the extension may increase enrollment figures by a few hundred thousand people, it will also ensure that the pool of people signing up is even sicker and older than it would have been otherwise.
WellPoint, the bellwether insurance firm, held its annual investor conference last week. There, Ken Goulet, president of WellPoint’s division for conventional employer-sponsored and individually-purchased insurance plans, declared that, “looking at the rate increases on a year-over-year basis on our exchanges, and it will vary by carrier…all of them will probably be in the double digit plus.” That number can only go higher, not lower, with this latest delay.
That means that 2015 premiums on Obamacare’s exchanges will likely be even higher than they would have been before. That’s not good news for the millions of Americans who are trying to shop for coverage on their own but face steep rate hikes already.
Most importantly, the delay indicates that the Obama administration knows what we’ve all been concerned about: that while millions of people are signing up for Obamacare-sponsored insurance, the vast majority of those have been people who were previously insured. And if that’s true, the law isn’t helping the people it was meant to help. Two or three weeks, here or there, isn’t going to solve that problem.