New Year Brings New Test for Obamacare
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The Fiscal Times
January 2, 2014

After three months of technical glitches, cancelled insurance policies, consistent delays and relentless criticism from the media and Republicans, the moment of truth for Obamacare has finally arrived.

Yesterday the insurance policies purchased through the federal and state exchanges take effect and Americans who have enrolled for Obamacare and actually paid for a plan will find out just how good they are. 

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The stakes are high for the White House, which has poured billions of taxpayer dollars into implementing the president’s health care law. Any major failures including coverage gaps, low enrollment numbers or further problems with the website will almost certainly derail the law’s success even further than the website already has.

Administration officials expressed some concerns ahead of the New Year. 

“We’re very excited about tomorrow, but we’re vigilant," Phil Schiliro said on MSNBC on Tuesday. “We don’t want anybody to have problems, but we know some people will.” The main concern the White House has is that some people who think they have successfully signed up for coverage through the exchanges may not actually have insurance, if the website didn’t accurately transfer their data to insurance companies.

The White House is advising anyone who has problems to call their insurance providers or one of CMS’s call centers so they can determine whether or not they were properly enrolled. 

“If they have a bigger problem, then we will assign a case worker to it, and we’ll try to get a resolution as quickly as possible,” Schiliro said.

Related: The Many Disrupted Lives Under Obamacare

Insurers have expressed similar concerns over the potentially disastrous coverage gap problem.

"There could be a gap, which is regrettable, but at this point unavoidable,” Susan Millerick, an Aetna spokeswoman told CNN.

White House officials told reporters Tuesday that they have been working with insurers, hospitals and pharmacies to make the transition into the new policies as smooth as possible and reduce any potential coverage gaps. Walgreens and CVS have both agreed to provide short-term transitional coverage to consumers. 

Related: Obamacare’s Individual Mandate May Be Next to Fall

“Our message to consumers is this, if you’ve already enrolled or are still shopping for coverage, were committed to doing everything we can to make the transition as smooth as possible,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters on a press call Tuesday.

So far, more than 2.1 million people have enrolled in a private insurance plan through the state and federal exchanges since enrollment began on Oct. 1, according to estimates released by the Obama administration on Tuesday. About 1 million people signed up through the federal exchange, which services 36 states, the rest enrolled through the state exchanges.

Officials did not provide figures on how many people have actually paid for their policies. It is also unknown how many of the 2.1 million people who have enrolled in the exchanges were previously uninsured, and how many had received cancellation notices under the new law. However, CMS communications director Julie Bataille told reporters that “the number of those gaining new coverage outpaces those who have lost plans.” 

Due to severe website problems in the first two months of the rollout, enrollment numbers are far below the White House’s goal of signing up 7 million people by March 1. Despite a late surge in enrollments in December after CMS announced the website had been repaired.

Related: Low Obamacare Enrollment More Proof of a Disaster

Still, administration officials are optimistic that they will sign up enough people before the March 31 open enrollment deadline. On MSNBC Schiliro downplayed the importance of the 7 million figure and said it was only a projection by the Congressional Budget Office that “became the accepted number,” but “there is no magic to it.” 

From the beginning, White House officials have stressed that the number of people who enroll in the health exchanges matters less than who is enrolling. This means Obamacare will need to sign up healthy, typically young Americans in order to offset the cost of premiums for older, sicker Americans who tend to rack up higher medical bills. The White House has not yet released a demographic breakdown of enrollees, so it is unclear if they are on track. Still they remain optimistic. 

“It’s a new day in health care for millions of Americans,” Sebelius said “The most important New Years resolution we have is helping every American who wants to obtain affordable, quality healthcare coverage.” 

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Washington Correspondent Brianna Ehley, based in D.C., covers Congress, government agencies and spending issues, health care, and tax and economic policy for The Fiscal Times.