Consumers are flocking to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges to buy insurance, setting a record in the first few days of open enrollment, federal numbers out Thursday show.
Total daily sign-ups were up 79% for the first few days Healthcare.gov was open, compared to the equivalent period last year. Open enrollment started Nov. 1 and runs through Dec. 15.
The news comes despite — or perhaps because of — efforts to repeal and replace the health law on Capitol Hill and attempts by the Trump administration to dismantle it.
"The administration has caused a lot of anxiety for people over the last year when it comes to health care but there’s also been a more in-depth conversation about what Obamacare really is about," said former Obama administration official Lori Lodes, co-founder of the group Get America Covered. So when most people logged onto HealthCare.gov they found plans that are more affordable than they expected.
Sign-ups increased among new customers as well as those who were previously enrolled on Healthcare.gov, which handles enrollment for 39 states that didn't set up their own exchanges. These states tend to be controlled by Republican governors or legislatures that have not generally supported the law.
About two times as many people on average signed up each of the first four days of open enrollment, which started on a Wednesday, so these first figures are for a partial week. Even more surprising, there were more than 34,000 new customers on average a day, compared to more than 26,000 daily last year.
There's especially good reason for those receiving federal subsidies to sign up. More than half of the nearly 6 million people eligible for financial help can buy a bronze plan on Healthcare.gov without having to pay a premium, according to an analysis also out Thursday by Kaiser Family Foundation.
About 70% of people eligible for subsidies can get a bronze plan for $0 or less than the cost of the tax penalty this year.
Bronze plans are the least expensive plans, premium-wise, on the ACA exchanges that are available to everyone. These plans also cover just 60 percent of out-of-pocket costs, so they aren't for everyone, acknowledges Lodes.
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Even with zero or very low premiums, Louisiana insurance broker Ronnell Nolan says the options in her state aren't attractive for some of her clients. One couple with a $50,000 household income will have considerable trouble affording any of the options available on Healthcare.gov for their state, even with more than $2,100 monthly tax credit.
"The plans are horrible and they can't afford a decent plan based on their income," says Nolan, who also heads Health Agents for America. "Why does a health plan cost over $2,000 for the absolutely worse plan you can buy?"
Laura Buten and her husband are both self-employed and haven't fared nearly as well others who receive financial help to buy their plans. In fact, the bronze level plan premium for them and their 22-year-old son increased 50% to $1,630 a month for next year. The deductible is $6,350.
"To spend (that much) for health insurance and not get anything, is crazy," says Buten who is a real estate appraiser. "It makes me sick to think what I could do with that money."
She and her husband, an optician, "are not wealthy," she says, earning up to $200,000 a year. Buten sends her elderly mother money to supplement her Social Security check and wishes she could send more.
She also hopes President Trump's plan to allow insurance sales across state lines and for self-employed people to group together to buy association plans becomes official. The couple lives their lives in northern Kentucky just miles from the border of Ohio, where there are more and better options on the insurance exchange.
For those who do receive subsidies, are healthy and/or can set aside money, especially in a health savings account, Lodes says this year does offer some great deals.
"If the administration were doing everything they could to help people enroll, instead of undermining the law every chance they get, imagine how many more people would be signing up right now," says Lodes, who was President Barack Obama's spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
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