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Hopes and fears as health law sign-up season opens

November 15, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The second sign-up season under President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul opened Saturday, with hopes that this time consumers will have a positive experience.

But the fear is that entrenched political opposition and renewed legal challenges may yet collapse the program that’s bringing health care to millions of previously uninsured Americans. The administration can’t afford another technology meltdown.

With 7 million paying customers in new insurance markets, the Affordable Care Act has shown it is helping to reduce the number of uninsured. Insurers, not known for altruism, have stuck with the fledgling program despite ongoing technical headaches with the HealthCare.gov website. More companies are participating for 2015, a sign they see a business opportunity.

Obama urged consumers, whether they currently buy coverage through the insurance markets or still need to sign up for a plan, to go to the health care website and review their options. He said they could end up saving money or finding a better plan, and urged them to act fast since the enrollment period closes Feb. 15.

“This window won’t stay open forever. You only have three months to shop for plans, so it’s worth starting right away. And it might make a big difference for your family’s bottom line,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address, which the White House released as the president visited Brisbane, Australia.

The HealthCare.gov website, where people can sign up and search for coverage, appeared to be running smoothly Saturday. It was revamped to handle last season’s peak loads and beyond.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell tweeted that the website opened shortly after 1 a.m., with more than 23,000 people submitting applications within the first eight hours. She said 1.2 million unique visitors looked at coverage using the site’s window-shopping tool last week.

The Obama administration aims to have 9.1 million paying customers enrolled in 2015. That’s well below the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office had projected.

But the Affordable Care Act, which is popularly known as “Obamacare,” is still struggling to win hearts and minds. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll finds that, if forced to choose between repealing the law and implementing it as written, 56 percent of Americans would repeal it completely. Only 41 percent would carry it out.

However, most don’t see the law going away. Sixty-one percent said they expect it to be implemented in its current form, or something near that.

Burwell, a management expert assigned to save what’s been a problem child of social programs, says she’s confident the sign-up season will be successful, even if it’s only half as long as last year’s.

Burwell said the Obama administration will not let Republicans, who will control both chambers of Congress in January, repeal the law.

In another threat to the program, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the government subsidies that help millions of low- and middle-income people afford their health insurance premiums. The legal challenge maintains that under a literal reading of the law passed by Congress, financial aid can only be provided in states that have set up their own health insurance coverages but not in states using the federal exchanges.

Burwell said that the subsidies in the form of tax credits will continue for the time being. The Supreme Court isn’t likely to hear the case until the spring, after 2015 open enrollment is over.

The federal website will serve as the online portal for coverage in 37 states, while the remaining states run their own insurance exchanges.

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