Obamacare customers may show up in fits and starts

Tue Sep 17, 2013 4:09pm EDT
 
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By Sharon Begley

(Reuters) - Will Obamacare's launch look more like Black Friday, when U.S. shoppers flood retail stores for bargains the day after Thanksgiving, or April 15, when procrastinators wait until nearly midnight to file their taxes?

Officials involved in implementing President Barack Obama's healthcare law, academics who study health insurance and benefits experts interviewed by Reuters expect a little of both, with a graph of enrollment timing to be shaped like a lopsided W. They anticipate a fairly busy start as some of the uninsured buy coverage soon after the state-based exchanges open on October 1, followed by a drop-off for several weeks.

A smaller uptick could come just before December 15, the deadline for buying a policy for benefits beginning on January 1, 2014. A final rush of procrastinators is likely ahead of March 31, the last day to buy 2014 coverage and avoid a penalty.

The progress of enrollment will be scrutinized by Obamacare's advocates and foes, as each side will be quick to seize on evidence that the program is working or not. The administration expects to sign up as many as 7 million people via the exchanges for 2014, and needs that number to include about 2.7 million young, healthy participants for the program to work financially.

"We're expecting there will be a big uptake on October 1 and again at the end of the year because people wait until the last minute," said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Washington Healthplanfinder, that state's Obamacare exchange. "We'll probably also see a big wave in March - 'last call' to buy insurance (for 2014) or be penalized."

Hawaii's exchange, the Hawaii Health Connector, expects a similar pre-Christmas rush. "Given the past patterns of enrollment with other federal programs, consumers tend to wait until the month before the plan benefit period - January 2014 - to enroll and make payment," said Executive Director Coral Andrews, adding that "enrollment numbers at the end of December will" indicate whether Obamacare is working in the president's birth state.

A W-shaped chart would mimic how people have bought health insurance before Obamacare.

"Some people have that natural 'I want to get this done so I'm going to shop October 1,'" said Carrie McLean, director of customer care at online broker eHealthInsurance. But just as many eHealth customers put off shopping for insurance "and think they can call the end of the month and get insurance that starts the first of the following month," she said, so some ACA customers may also procrastinate.   Continued...

 
Supporters of the Affordable Healthcare Act gather in front of the Supreme Court before the court's announcement of the legality of the law in Washington on June 28, 2012 in this file picture. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts