TIME’S UP

Trump to Obamacare Shoppers: Sorry, Store’s Closed

A White House levels yet another blow to a health care law it abhors.

Despite larger-than-anticipated interest from consumers and past precedent for doing so, the Trump administration finally announced on Sunday that it will not extend open enrollment season for Obamacare.

"The deadline for people to shop and pick a plan for 2018 coverage ended on December 15," a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokesperson told The Daily Beast. "Like in previous years, we saw an uptick in the volume of consumers contacting our call center or visiting HealthCare.gov during the final days of open enrollment. Our team worked day-and-night to help consumers have a seamless open enrollment experience. Despite the increase in volume, both HealthCare.gov and call center operated optimally and consumers were able to easily access enrollment tools to compare plans and prices."

The decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to simply let the deadline come and go came despite pleas from health care advocates and Democratic lawmakers to extend the window. On Tuesday, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Patty Murray (D-WA) drafted a letter to Eric Hargan, the acting HHS secretary and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, requesting that they consider extending the period to Jan. 31, 2018 (PDF).

“The Administration’s decision to depart from years of agency policy by ending Open Enrollment on December 15th is compounded by the many other efforts by this Administration to destabilize the insurance market, making it likely that many consumers miss this deadline and forgo insurance next year—all despite clear indications that consumers are highly interested in seeking coverage for 2018,” they wrote.

In past years, the Obama administration had a number of specific deadlines for new and current enrollees. There was Dec. 15, which was the deadline for consumers to buy coverage that would go into effect the next calendar year. That was also the deadline for when returning consumers were actively renewed in their plans. An Obama official who worked on enrollment said that Dec. 15 was “historically the biggest enrollment date of the year” in part because those hoping to change plans would rush to choose a new one by then, lest they be placed into one they didn’t like and forget to change it at a later date.

But the Obama administration also kept enrollment open to Jan. 31 in case consumers wanted to choose a new plan or opt out of insurance entirely. And as that second deadline approached, the marketplace would experience a second surge in enrollment. Often, in fact, the administration would grant multi-day extensions on both the Dec. 15 and Jan. 31 deadlines to accommodate the crush of consumers.

The Trump administration has compressed both deadlines into one (Dec. 15) though it did allow a grace period for those people stuck in the queue when the final day came. "Similar to last year, people that were asked to leave their contact information with the call center will be contacted to complete their applications and plan selections," the CMS spokesperson said. "All consumers who left their contact information will be helped to enroll in a plan with Jan 1 coverage." 

In choosing to stand firm on the Dec. 15 date, advocates fear that many consumers will likely be auto-enrolled in plans and unable to change them even if they find them ill-fitting or too expensive. There is also concern that potential new consumers will simply forgo purchasing insurance at all. Only in nine states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Washington) and the District of Columbia, has the deadline been extended by the state government authorities.

In a statement to The Daily Beast earlier in the week, an HHS official said that the administration was committed to “a seamless open enrollment experience for consumers this year” while noting that the website for purchasing coverage was “performing well and consumers can easily access enrollment tools to compare plans and prices.”

Additionally, the agency pointed to the fact that the previous administration had set Dec. 15 as the end of the open enrollment period for the coverage year of 2019—but not 2018.

Despite the high amount of interest in enrolling for 2018, CMS and the administration at large have done little to actively promote deadlines and remind people to enroll in the marketplace as time winds down. Democrats and those who caucus with them have been maddened by the neglect. In addition to Murray and Wyden, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) had requested that Verma extend the open enrollment deadline in Maine after the state was hit with a crippling storm. King’s office had not heard back from the CMS director as of last week.

The state of North Carolina had requested a delay too. But a spokesman for Gov. Rory Cooper’s office told The Daily Beast that they had “not heard from either CMS or HHS.”