POLITICS
01/30/2017 04:30 pm ET

Senior Democrats Demand Obamacare Enrollment Extension

House members say Trump damaged sign-ups by halting ads and should give people more time.

WASHINGTON ― The top Democrats on three major House committees want President Donald Trump to give health insurance customers two more weeks to choose plans this year.

In a letter sent to acting Health and Human Services Secretary Norris Cochran on Monday, the lawmakers say the deadline extension and other steps are needed because the Trump administration halted advertising for HealthCare.gov just days before the final deadline, which is Tuesday.

“We are deeply concerned that the administration’s seemingly intentional efforts to sabotage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces will result in adverse risk selection, destabilize insurance markets and send premiums skyrocketing,” the Democrats wrote.

Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (N.J.), Ways and Means Committee ranking member Richard Neal (Mass.) and Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member Bobby Scott (Va.) signed the letter to Cochran, a career civil servant.

Last week, Politico reported that the administration pulled back $5 million in advertising that President Barack Obama’s administration prepaid to promote enrollment as the deadline neared.

The Trump administration also cut off email reminders, social media campaigns and other tools used to notify consumers that time was running out, Politico reported. The administration subsequently resumed the email reminders and social media outreach.

These actions threatened not only to reduce overall sign-ups but to leave in the lurch shoppers who aren’t aware the deadline is near.

Previous open enrollment periods have proved that the last days of sign-ups are among the busiest, and also that younger consumers ― crucial to keeping costs down because they use fewer health care services ― enroll in large numbers close to the deadline.

“The White House’s efforts to suppress enrollment will therefore weaken the risk pool, resulting in greater costs for everyone,” Pallone, Neal and Scott wrote.

The lawmakers also cite concern about the executive order Trump issued on his first day in office instructing federal agencies to relax Affordable Care Act rules and signals from the White House that such changes could include ending enforcement of the law’s mandate that most Americans have health coverage. That individual mandate is key to encouraging healthier, less costly consumers to buy coverage, since they face tax penalties if they don’t.

The executive order “creates the distinct impression that the administration is attempting to sabotage enrollment,” the lawmakers wrote.

In response, Pallone, Neal and Scott say, consumers should be allowed to enroll for two weeks past the original Jan. 31 deadline. In addition, the letter calls for the advertising campaign to be restored.

The Democratic lawmakers also submitted a list of questions and demands for documentation from the Department of Health and Human Services. Among them are whether the administration intends to keep the health insurance exchange call centers and HealthCare.gov in operation throughout 2017, and what the administration’s plans are for next year’s enrollment period.

Although Trump and congressional Republicans vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act and “replace” it with alternative health care reform policies, they have not agreed on a plan to do so, or how and when they should proceed. The “repeal and delay” strategy favored by House and Senate Republican leaders would require the health insurance exchanges to remain in place through at least 2018 while the hypothetical new system is erected.

As of Dec. 24, more than 11.5 million people had enrolled in private health insurance using the exchanges, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported Jan. 10, slightly surpassing the 2016 sign-up period and putting the marketplaces within reach of this year’s target. The Trump administration has not issued more recent figures. 

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