If you haven't signed up for a healthcare plan by
midnight tomorrow at midnight (see update), you won't be covered on January 1. But the deadline is mostly symbolic. Despite the botched rollout, Obamacare continues to slowly gain momentum.
The New York Times looked at the data, which makes it clear that the Affordable Care Act is nowhere near where the administration wanted it to be at this point. President Obama hoped that there would be three million people enrolled by the end of the year and the figure is closer to one million. Even the president hasn't signed up through the marketplace yet, though he's promised to do so by midnight. With tonight's deadline looming, states that run their own exchanges are staffing up in anticipation of increased demand. But even a sign-up surge is unlikely to triple enrollment.
Assuming that the exchanges work, the failure of the federal Healthcare.gov, well-documented in another Times article on Monday, isn't the only Obamacare website that's seen problems. Oregon's exchange has been plagued with problems for longer than the federal government's. According to Politico, Maryland's Democratic candidate for governor is furious that his state's exchange has seen such balky performance.
Complaining about Obamacare is still good politics, regardless of party. A new CNN poll suggests that the policy has never been less popular, with only 35 percent of Americans saying they support it. That is a drop of five percent over the past month — a drop that occurred even as performance on the federal exchange website improved dramatically. "Nearly all of the newfound opposition," CNN notes, "is coming from women."
So what does it mean if you are uninsured and haven't signed up by midnight (tomorrow)? It means, exactly as the advertising has suggested, that you won't be covered on January 1. That isn't ideal since the law's aim is to get people insured sooner rather than later. But you won't automatically be subject to the penalty that is applied to the uninsured beginning in 2014. As long as you're covered for nine months of the year, no penalty will be applied.
The deadline, then, is largely a benchmark. Or, "a huge milestone," in the words of Andrea Routh, the head of an advocacy group quoted by The Times. It's a point at which Obamacare takes another step forward in terms of implementation — and another step away from any attempt to undo the law entirely. As Salon's Brian Beutler wrote earlier this month, the more that people enroll in the program, the harder it will be for any politician to say that those insurance policies should be taken away. This is especially true given the ferocity with which Republicans have criticized the administration on behalf of people who lost their insurance policies because they didn't meet Obamacare's minimum requirements. It would be hard to then turn around and demand policies for a million other people be revoked. In fact it could be as many as 8 million — the figure one official gave as the possible number of enrollments under the Medicaid expansion.
What's important to watch over the medium term isn't how many people have enrolled, really — it's who is enrolling. Insurers need a lot of young, healthy people to sign up in order to offset the costs for older, sicker people. And according to The Times, it's that latter group that's enrolling more heavily.
In Colorado, 43 percent of people signing up for private plans in the first couple of months were in the 55-to-64 age bracket. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, the share was 40 percent. And in California and Kentucky, the proportion was 35 percent. Nationally, about 12 percent of the population is 55 to 64.
If those trends continue, it will be a significant problem for Obamacare, one that politicians will need to address. But that won't happen at midnight tonight. Obama's Christmas won't be ruined this year, but we make no promises about 2014.
Update, 12:30 p.m.: The government gave you an extra day.
BREAKING. Gvmt official confirms people who sign up for Obamacare health care tomorrow will still quality for coverage starting January 1st.— Charlie Kaye (@CharlieKayeCBS) December 23, 2013
Update, 1:30 p.m.: And the president has enrolled.
BREAKING: President Obama signed up for a health care plan this weekend on the DC exchange. He went with a bronze plan.— Ashley Parker (@AshleyRParker) December 23, 2013