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Crunch time again for health law; Tuesday sign-up deadline

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – It’s crunch time to sign up for coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law. The website works much better now, but rising premiums and shaken faith among insurers have cast new shadows.

Tuesday is the deadline for millions of uninsured procrastinators to sign up in time for coverage to begin on Jan. 1. As the health insurance expansion enters its third year, their decisions are critical to its economic viability. A surge of younger, healthier customers could hold down premiums in a market that’s struggling to grow.

More than half of the health law’s 23 nonprofit insurance cooperatives have folded, and even some major industry players have recently gone public with doubts.

“Medical costs of enrollees have been higher than expected and total enrollment remains low,” said Caroline Pearson, a vice president at the consulting firm Avalere Health. “If participation is leveling off, then plans may be stuck with a risk pool that is not particularly balanced.”

The Obama administration says it’s seeing a vigorous consumer response this sign-up season, with more than 1 million new customers already.

“All the evidence for us is that the marketplace is strong, it’s vibrant, and it’s growing,” said Andy Slavitt, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the government’s major insurance programs.

Still, the administration’s sign-up target for 2016, the president’s last full year in office, is modest: 10 million people enrolled and paying premiums at the end of the year, an increase of about 10 percent.

Ahead of sign-up season, it was expected that premiums for health law plans would go up in most places. A wave of closures among the law’s nonprofit insurance co-ops led to more worries.

But what really seems to have shaken confidence were recent comments by UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley that the nation’s largest insurer had made a bad decision in expanding into more of the law’s insurance exchanges.

Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Foundation, says the health law’s insurance markets appear to be making progress. But they’re not there yet.

“It’s going to take more people enrolled to be fully successful,” Altman said.

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