Last-Minute Obamacare Sign Ups Were Strong Despite the Law’s Shaky Future

During the last two weeks of open enrollment, 376,260 people signed up for Obamacare. That’s nearly equivalent to the population of Cleveland, Ohio.

All those people signed up for insurance even after the election of the man who — during the campaign — took every opportunity to disparage the landmark legislation, and made repeated promises to repeal the act. Most of the period followed Trump’s inauguration, after which one of his first moves was an executive order laying the groundwork for repeal of the ACA.

Jennifer Sullivan, the vice president for programs at the non-profit Enroll America, said the organization considered the final enrollment numbers a strong showing of public support for Obamacare.

The data suggests that a large number of Americans continue to value the health insurance marketplace. Trump’s election did not temper the demand for coverage under Obama’s signature legislation nearly as much as it could have, and many proponents of the health care system are pointing to those numbers as evidence of the law’s broad popularity.

“We saw records numbers of people enrolling on the day after the election,” Sullivan said in an interview. “Obviously, over the last several weeks we have seen Congress taking the first steps in the appeal effort, an executive order, and ads being pulled. All of that together, those are a lot of challenges to overcome. What we make of these numbers, is that consumers are still really interested.”

Indeed, on the Wednesday after Trump’s surprising win, more than 100,000 people signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The surge was the highest on a single day since open enrollment began on Nov. 1.

The numbers are down significantly from last year, when during the same two-week period 789,880 people enrolled. Sullivan said the dip has many causes, but certainly a major component is the messaging from Republican politicians that the death of the law is imminent.

Enroll America describes itself as non-partisan, but it’s working in a field that has become bitterly partisan. The organization works to maximize the number of Americans who enroll in and retain health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Sullivan’s office has fielded many calls from people asking if the penalty for not enrolling — the individual mandate — still applies (it does). Sullivan said many in the healthcare field suspect the Trump administration will continue to chip away at the margins of the massive piece of legislation that will have the effect of making it less and less appealing for consumers.

One of the early casualties could be grace periods for those who miss their monthly premium payments. Currently, a certain amount of leeway is built in so that folks who pay late are not shut off from their insurance. That security shouldn’t be taken for granted and may not last for long, Sullivan said.

“As we are going into this off-season when the marketplace is closed, it is important for consumers to remember to make their monthly premium payments. It is just critically important,” she added.

In recent weeks, the Republican promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare has morphed into a more ambiguous pledge that includes “repairing” key parts of the law without throwing it out altogether. Trump, during his Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly, indicated that the replacement process might drag on into 2018. The wavering further shows that Obama wasn’t bluffing when he tasked the GOP with inventing a plan better than his own.

Trump has promised to not kick people off of their coverage, while the GOP has pledged to nix Obamacare’s “big government” individual mandate. The lack of coordination between the Oval Office and the rest of the Republican Party is creating a criss-crossing web of promises that will be nearly impossible to fulfill. Indeed, if they manage to fill most of them, the end product may not look so different than Obamacare after all.

Peregrine Frissell

Peregrine Frissell is an intern at the Washington Monthly. He has previously worked for papers in Connecticut, Montana and Kathmandu, Nepal and is a graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana.