More Americans have signed up to have health plans through the Affordable Care Act as of Jan. 1 than in previous years, despite spiking insurance prices and a pledge by President-elect Donald Trump to dismantle the law.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced on Wednesday that 6.4 million people had chosen Affordable Care Act health plans by the deadline this week for coverage starting New Year’s Day — an increase of 400,000 from a year ago, though fewer first-time customers enrolled.
Yet, as Burwell said the figures signify that “doomsday predictions about the marketplace are not bearing out,” Obama administration officials and health policy researchers who support the law have been taking precautions before Trump takes office.
Since shortly after last month’s election, think tank and university researchers have been downloading Affordable Care Act data, reports and regulatory guidance housed online at HHS — in case the new administration removes them as part of its efforts to wipe out the law.
At a Nov. 30 gathering of health policy researchers at the Urban Institute in Washington, Jeanne Lambrew, a domestic policy adviser to President Obama for health reform, encouraged participants to save the material while they still had access to it, according to a researcher who was present. “It wasn’t, ‘Strike the panic button,’ ” said the researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was confidential. “She did mention, “Oh, if you guys aren’t downloading documents and data, you probably should be.’ ”
The safeguarding of health-care records, first reported by Politico, coincides with an archiving campaign underway by environmental researchers who are trying to ensure that government climate measurements are not erased by the incoming administration. Trump’s Cabinet appointees include several figures who dispute the scientific consensus around global warming.
According to several health policy researchers working to preserve Affordable Care Act records, the material includes raw data on enrollment and insurance benefits prices, analyses by HHS’s research arm and myriad interpretations the department has issued over the past six years about how the law should be carried out.
“I asked my team to go back and make sure we had saved copies of everything we use regularly on our servers, instead of relying on web links,” said Caroline Pearson, a senior vice president at Avalere Health, a D.C.-based consulting firm. “If we believe that the ACA is going to be repealed and the exchanges aren’t going to have the political favor they do now, it seems likely that the data about the exchanges could be taken down.”
In the current administration’s final weeks, another researcher said, HHS officials are also trying to hasten the release of previously undisclosed health data.
White House spokeswoman Katie Hill declined to comment on officials’ interest in preserving information.
In releasing the latest Affordable Care Act sign-up figures, Burwell predicted that enrollment is on pace to reach the 13.8 million that HHS projected for this fourth sign-up season in the insurance marketplaces created through the law.
The 6.4 million includes new and returning customers who have selected coverage in the 39 states that rely on HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange’s website. Those people will need to pay their first premium for their insurance to take effect.
The number does not include consumers who currently have coverage under the health law and soon will be automatically reenrolled because they have not picked a health plan for 2017. A year ago, HHS automatically enrolled slightly more than 2 million such people, who later were given a chance to keep or turn down that insurance.
Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said Wednesday that, given the latest data, “there are certainly no signs of the marketplace collapsing in response to premium increases and uncertainty over the future of the law.”
The enrollment season began Nov. 1 and is scheduled to end Jan. 31. That means the final sign-up days will take place after Trump becomes president.
Asked whether current HHS leaders have provided information to Trump’s transition team to help it finish the enrollment period, Burwell and Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, sidestepped the question. The agency’s “staff is obviously quite good and quite strong and quite capable,” Slavitt said. “We obviously will do anything asked of us to help the new team.”