Health Care

Obamacare CEO: ‘Highly unlikely’ coverage will be canceled in 2017

Kevin J. Counihan, CEO of the Health Insurance Marketplace, better known as healthcare.gov or Obamacare, speaks during a visit to the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade County in Coral Gables to promote enrollment in Affordable Care Act plans sold on healthcare.gov, which have been very popular in Florida, on Friday Dec. 9, 2016.
Kevin J. Counihan, CEO of the Health Insurance Marketplace, better known as healthcare.gov or Obamacare, speaks during a visit to the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade County in Coral Gables to promote enrollment in Affordable Care Act plans sold on healthcare.gov, which have been very popular in Florida, on Friday Dec. 9, 2016. pportal@miamiherald.com

Enrollment in Affordable Care Act plans is outpacing last year’s sign-up rate by about 5 percent through mid-December — demonstrating strong demand for the program and making it “highly unlikely” that Congress and President-elect Donald Trump would cancel coverage for millions of consumers in 2017, the chief executive of the federal government’s healthcare.gov insurance exchange said during a visit to Miami on Friday.

“Congress can literally do whatever they want,” Kevin Counihan, CEO of the Health Insurance Marketplaces, told a group of enrollment counselors with the nonprofit Epilepsy Foundation of Florida.

Dec. 15 is the deadline for eligible consumers to sign up for coverage that begins on New Year’s Day through the Affordable Care Act insurance exchange at healthcare.gov. Open enrollment ends Jan. 31.

But canceling coverage in 2017, he said, “That’d be a pretty risky political play, highly unlikely, I’d say.”

Counihan, whose job ends at noon on Inauguration Day, acknowledged the high degree of uncertainty about the future of the health law commonly known as Obamacare. Trump has vowed to repeal and replace the law, and Republican leaders in Congressional have promised to make it a priority — causing concern among consumers with ACA plans.

“It’s not the easiest thing to go to sleep thinking about at night,” said Ronald Sarraf-Berrios, who first bought an ACA plan in 2015 and then became a certified enrollment counselor, known as a “navigator,” for the Epilepsy Foundation.

But from Counihan’s vantage, he told them, it appears that the president-elect and Republicans in Congress are trying to figure out their options. “You know the expression,” he said, “the dog who caught the bus.”

As CEO of healthcare.gov, which was established by the ACA and serves residents of 39 states, including Florida, Counihan said he is often in touch with the top executives of insurance companies that sell coverage on the exchange — and none of them believe coverage will be canceled in 2017.

“I haven’t met one,” he said.

However, Counihan added, insurance company executives are looking for a degree of certainty about the future — and they’re not willing to wait very long.

“The CEOs that I’ve talked to are all looking for some kind of assurance by March or April as to where this is going. They’re thinking that if they’re not getting something pretty concrete, they’re going to take a pretty hard look at 2018.”

514,000 Floridians signed up for coverage on healthcare.gov through Nov. 26

In Florida, more than 1.5 million residents were covered by an ACA plan through the first quarter of 2016, more than any other state. In Miami-Dade, nearly 400,000 people were covered by an Obamacare plan this year, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

During the first four weeks of open enrollment for the ACA exchange, which began on Nov. 1, Florida once again made a strong showing with nearly 514,000 residents signing up for 2017 coverage — representing more than one quarter of the 2.14 million plan selections through Nov. 26 on healthcare.gov.

Counihan said he was encouraged that, despite higher premiums and fewer companies selling plans on the ACA exchange for 2017, enrollment is tracking faster than the prior year, when about 2.04 million consumers had signed up through November.

“We all know there’s demand,” he said, adding that the enrollment goal for 2017 coverage through the ACA exchange is about 13.8 million people. Millions of others are covered through Medicaid expansion in the states that chose to broaden eligibility, which Florida did not do.

Counihan, who spoke at the offices of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade County, encouraged enrollment counselors to continue signing up consumers, and he urged them to work harder as the Dec. 15 deadline approached for coverage that begins on New Year’s Day.

“I know you guys are already working your tails off,” he said, “if you could just give 10 percent more.”

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