Obamacare signups surge, but look sure to fall short of last year's numbers

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Obamacare signups surge, but look sure to fall short of last year's numbers

Open enrollment 2018 just had its best week ever.

Per the latest Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services data, 1,073,921 Americans signed up for a health care plan through Healthcare.gov between Dec. 3 and Dec. 9.

That's a sharp uptick from last week's (previously highest) 823,180 signups — but likely not enough to best 2017 enrollment.

Why?

Since the start of open enrollment (Nov. 1), 4,678,361 Americans purchased health insurance from the federal exchange created by former President Barack Obama's health care law. Those are surprisingly strong numbers, given Republicans repeated attempts to repeal the law and the Trump administration's efforts to undermine it.

But 9.2 million customers purchased insurance through Healthcare.gov last year — when the marketplace was open through Jan. 31.

This year, Healthcare.gov closes on Friday. That means over 4.5 million people need to get plans during the last week of enrollment to meet 2017 numbers. (CMS data excludes state-exchanges, many of which are open longer.)

Comparing apples to oranges

The shortened enrollment period — enacted by the Trump administration — has made it difficult to compare this year's data to last year's data.

Signups for 2018 plans have been strong out of the gate, besting 2017 enrollment week after week. But a big cloud loomed over the data: Were more people signing up early as opposed to simply signing up?

The answer remains unclear, given the numbers haven't petered out. Moreover, a Policygenius survey found back in October that 76% of Americans had no idea when federal open enrollment was. So it's possible signups this year, while surprisingly strong, are actually suffering from Trump's truncated enrollment period. More people might want to sign up for health insurance, but think they have longer to do so.

All eyes on auto-renewals

There's one final mystery in the sea of Obamacare 2018 mysteries: Under the health care law, people who had plans in a prior year may get automatically re-enrolled in that plan or one like it once the following year's marketplace closes.

For 2017, about 2.2 million consumers were autorenewed in a federal marketplace plan.

But we can't use that number as a true benchmark, given how different this year has been for the exchange. Sure, it's possible people don't know Healthcare.gov is closing Friday (in which case auto-enrollment might be higher). But it's also possible reports of $0 bronze plans and low-cost silver plans — the result of higher premium tax credits inadvertently created by Trump — lured existing policyholders to the marketplace for some comparison-shopping (in which case auto-enrollment numbers might be lower).

A case for shopping the exchanges

No matter how 2018 enrollment pans out, there's good reason to shop for health insurance before it ends — namely, the possibility of not having health insurance. Plus, Americans, particularly those who qualify for subsidies, are finding affordable plans on the exchange. And, should you log into Healthcare.gov and find yourself priced out of the marketplace, there are other options.

For instance, you can look into off-exchange plans, which aren't subject to stringent marketplace requirements and, thus, sometimes less expensive. You can also look into short-term health insurance, limited benefit plans or prescription discount cards. We've got more on these health insurance alternatives here.

Image: Ildo Franzo