Dire predictions of a slump in health plan enrollments on the Obamacare exchanges have proven unfounded, at least during the first days of open enrollment. Despite big budget cuts by the Trump Administration for advertising and enrollment assistance, sign-ups on the Obamacare exchanges increased by wide margins during the first days that people could sign up for 2018. Despite all of the Trump and GOP efforts to repeal and replace — or just kill — the Affordable Care Act, more Americans are turning to it for coverage.
The surge in enrollments was first reported by The Hill, quoting anonymous sources who work on the exchanges. It was also confirmed by an administration official. The big increase came on Nov. 1, the first day that enrollment opened. Some 200,000 Americans signed up for 2018 coverage, about twice as many as last year on the first day. The number of visitors to HealthCare.Gov also increased, up to about 1 million from a high last year of just 750,000.
These are not official numbers from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. An official there told The Washington Post that they will provide data on how enrollments are going regularly, but no information was available at this time. "We plan to release enrollment snapshot data regularly throughout open enrollment as we have done in the past," the official told the paper.
There are also many states and the District of Columbia who don't use the federal exchanges but run their own programs. They're sign-up figures are not reflected in this data.
Now the thing to watch is whether this momentum will continue. Trump cut advertising for the enrollment period from $100 million to just $10 million. And the budget for "navigators," the people trained to assist consumers with the sign-up process was also reduced by about 40 percent. The administration defended that by saying it was allocating funds based on how well navigators met last year's sign-up goals.
Some 12 million people signed up for 2017 coverage, so 200,000 is not necessarily a number that will reflect the overall success of the exchanges this year. In addition to the funding cuts, the enrollment period was shortened and is now running from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, which is about half as long as last year when sign-ups could continue until Jan. 31.
Perhaps it's all the threats to Obamacare, from these enrollment challenges to the GOP effort to repeal and replace this summer, that have helped the ACA. Health care and the Affordable Care Act in particular have been in the news for the better part of a year, potentially growing awareness of how the coverage works.
And the bill has become more popular, according to Obamacare approval ratings that reached 50 percent this summer. Since then, they've stayed relatively high. As of October some 51 percent of Americans view the law favorably, compared with 40 percent who view it unfavorably, according to data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Last November slightly more Americans saw Obamacare unfavorably than favorably.
The outside estimates for 2018 enrollment range quite a bit. Joshua Peck, a former chief marketing officer for HealthCare.gov and a co-founder of Get America Covered predicted on Medium in October that at least 1.1 million fewer people would enroll this year thanks to the Trump Administration's budget cuts. Furthermore, Standard & Poor's predicts that enrollment could drop by as much as 1.6 million. But some insurers saw opportunities for an increase in sign-ups. Insurers are nervous about consistency from the Trump Administration, but many are optimistic about sign-ups through the exchanges.
It's too soon to say how the Trump Administration's management and the GOP's repeal focus will ultimately affect the ACA, but it's maybe not as dire as was thought.