Administration Drastically Lowers the Bar for Second Year of Enrollment

Broken promises and lowered expectations littered the first year of the Affordable Care Act. When the law was being debated, Obama promised the law would cut health care premiums for a typical family by $2,500. Instead, premiums everywhere continued to rise, in some places they skyrocketed. Supporters claimed the law would reduce the deficit, citing a score from the Congressional Budget Office. More recent calculations with a full ten years of implementation show that it will increase budget deficits. The now infamous “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it” pledge, which Politifact dubbed its “lie of the year” turned out to be a fabrication as millions of people received cancellation notices. The administration has tried to shift focus from past promises on cost containment and premium savings to the expansion of insurance coverage. Even in this area, the Affordable Care Act looks like it will fail to meet its goals, and the administration is already scrambling to try to temper expectations.

At an event at the Center for American Progress earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell revealed that the administration had drastically lowered their exchange enrollment target. She divulged “[t]he number we’re going to aim for this year is 9.1 million.” This is a far cry from the Congressional Budget Office’s April projection of 13 million. The new goal for next year  is only 70 percent of the initial projection, which showed exchange enrollment jumping 7 million in 2015. The new target only anticipates a net increase of 2 million, a drastic reduction.       

In a related brief, HHS cited a slower than expected shift from employer-sponsored insurance and off-exchange enrollment as the reason for the lower projection. The brief suggests that it will take five years instead of three to ramp up to the eventual enrollment level of 25 million. This could mean that exchange enrollment could not reach its peak until 2019 and will likely fall short of initial expectations for years to come.

Secretary Burwell also sought to tamp down expectations for the website, saying that it “will have things that won’t go right. We will have outages, we will have downtime.” While the website will probably function better than last time, the second round of open enrollment faces many serious obstacles.

Most of the people most interested in signing up already did last year. Convincing those still uninsured to sign up could be more of a challenge. The first enrollment period had more outreach and coverage, whereas the Obamacare story potential enrollees are most likely to see now is news that the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could invalidate the majority of federal subsidies. Automatic renewal for people already enrolled poses another problem. If they do nothing, many people could keep the same plan but have to pay much more due to the way the law calculates subsidies. On top of that, the second open enrollment is only half as long as the first, so people have less time to visit the website and enroll through the exchange.

The first real indicator for how the second round is going will be how the renewal period goes for people who signed up last year. Last year there was a surge in enrollment at the end of the enrollment period. If people run into problems with automatic renewal or have difficulty using the website that could deter new potential enrollees.

The law’s past failures have led to broken promises and missed goals in areas like cost savings, premium reduction and improving the quality of care people receive. One of the only metrics the administration could point to in the past was that exchange enrollment in the first year actually met stated goals despite the website’s terrible launch. Now it seems that the law will fall short in enrollment too.

Open enrollment begins next week, and the recent efforts by the administration to lower expectations so close to the start date do not inspire much confidence.