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How Trump set up Obamacare to fail

President Donald Trump
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump

President Trump hasn't succeeded in repealing Obamacare yet. But his administration is doing its best to force the law to fail.

The most critical time of the year for the health care law is almost here: open enrollment, when millions of people log on to online marketplaces, check whether they qualify for federal subsidies to help them pay their premiums, and shop for plans. For the past three years, at least 10 million people have gotten insurance that way each year.

But this year, open enrollment is in the hands of a White House that's openly hostile to the Affordable Care Act — and the Trump administration is taking advantage of the best opportunity it has to undercut the law.

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President Trump has said that he wants Obamacare to implode, which he hopes would reignite the stalled congressional effort to repeal it. He isn't just sitting around waiting for that to happen. His administration halved the length of open enrollment. They slashed spending on advertising and assistance programs. They pulled out of outreach events at the last minute.

The entire health care law could be at stake. Advertising and outreach are primarily targeted to younger and healthier people, who are essential to the law's goal of affordable insurance coverage for all Americans. If their enrollment drops while older, sicker people keep signing up, premiums are going to increase even more next year.

It's the start of a death spiral, a self-perpetuating cycle of price hikes and falling enrollment — which is exactly what Trump has said he wants.

"I think what this cumulative activity can do is start that death spiral," Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama's health and human services secretary during the ACA's first open enrollment, told me.

Obamacare supporters are already conceding that as a result of these cuts, they likely won't be able to match last year's 12 million sign-ups. "I don't actually think that's possible anymore," Lori Lodes, who worked on Obamacare enrollment in the Obama administration, told me.

We will know by December 15, the end of this year's open enrollment period, how much the White House has succeeded in gutting Obamacare. By embracing this strategy, the Trump administration has put its political goals ahead of the millions of people who depend on the ACA for insurance.

"I really do think what they want to be able to do is come out on December 16 and say, 'See, we told you Obamacare is imploding; it's failing,'" Lodes said. "When the reality is they are going to be responsible because of the decisions they've made to undermine open enrollment."

Open enrollment and outreach, explained

Every fall, the Obamacare insurance marketplaces open for business. People have a few weeks to log on, check out their options, and sign up for coverage. This year, sign-ups start on November 1 and close on December 15.

An entire apparatus exists to support open enrollment. Most states use the federal Healthcare.gov, while a few run their own marketplaces. The feds and some states run call centers, where people can talk to a real person to walk through enrollment. The federal government funds navigator and in-person assistance programs, which set up places where people can get help navigating the sign-up process.

Open enrollment hasn't technically changed much this year, except it's been shortened from 12 weeks to six. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same. Healthcare.gov will still be open. People can still get tax subsidies and shop for coverage. All of the ACA's regulations, such as protections for people with preexisting conditions and the requirement that insurers cover essential health benefits, remain in place.

But the mere need to clarify that, yes, Obamacare is still around is a big problem for open enrollment. After eight months of Republicans fighting to repeal it while claiming it's failing, people like Lodes worry that many Americans think the law either is already gone or won't be around for much longer.

Which is why outreach is so important.

The Obama administration went all out every year to promote open enrollment. President Obama appeared on late-night TV and viral online shows. The administration recruited celebrities to star in ads or highlight open enrollment on social media. Senior officials scrounged for as much money for the navigator program as they could find.

While things didn't always go smoothly — the launch of Healthcare.gov was a disaster — the efforts helped 12 million people sign up for coverage in 2016. The uninsured rate has dropped to historic lows, and insurers have started to see improved business on the law's marketplaces.

The key, Lodes said, was blanketing people with information — from television ads and email and text message reminders to working with community-based groups and churches. The biggest barrier was convincing people they could actually afford insurance, once the law's financial assistance was accounted for.

Outreach works: The Huffington Post reportedrecently that an internal Health and Human Services Department report concluded that 37 percent of sign-ups in the last few months of 2016 could be attributed to outreach.

Trump administration officials have defended their outreach cuts in part by arguing that people are already familiar with Obamacare after three years. "I don't think we can force people to sign up for a program," a senior administration official told reporters in August.

But that runs counter to the available evidence. Nearly 40 percent of the US uninsured were still unaware of the marketplaces last year, and almost half did not know they might be eligible for financial assistance, according to surveys by the Commonwealth Fund.

"There is a difference knowing Obamacare is the law and knowing what you should do with that information," Lodes said, "between knowing you need to sign up in this finite period of time or you do not get health coverage."

The Obama administration had assumed that older people or people with preexisting conditions who struggled to get insurance before the ACA would be eager to sign up. So they focused their efforts on reaching younger people or people who hadn't had insurance before. Every year, people turn 26 and roll off their parents' health insurance, or maybe they get a new job with a higher salary and need to move from Medicaid to private insurance.

Every year, in other words, there are brand new customers for the ACA marketplaces.

"They're either the least familiar or they are the healthiest. Either way, they either don't know or don't believe they need or want health insurance," Sebelius said. "For somebody to suggest that there is no persuasion needed is just nuts."

How Trump is sabotaging Obamacare enrollment

Because open enrollment is such a sprawling undertaking, the Trump administration has many tools at its disposal to undermine it and, by extension, the ACA. It seems to be using all of them.

The White House has some minimal requirements under federal law. It must perform outreach and education, it must run a call center, it must have a website where people can enroll, and it must operate a navigator program.

On paper, the Trump administration will do each of those things. But each is facing significant cuts. Together, they add up to a clear picture of an administration using every means available to drop support for ACA enrollment:

  1. Just a few weeks into the Trump administration, HHS announced it would reduce open enrollment from 12 weeks to six weeks.
  2. Trump has threatened since the spring to cut off federal payments to health insurers, driving up premiums and leaving some counties at risk of having no insurance options.
  3. Over the summer, Trump administration officials hinted they might not enforce the individual mandate.
  4. In August, HHS said it would cut funding for Obamacare advertising by 90 percent, from $100 million to $10 million.
  5. HHS also said it would cut funding for in-person assistance by 40 percent.
  6. A few weeks later, the department let the in-person assistance budget run out entirely without awarding more money.
  7. Late last month, the administration abruptly pulled out of state-level open enrollment events.
  8. HHS has cut off relationships with Latino groups that had worked with the Obama administration to enroll that population in coverage, Talking Points Memo has reported.

In other words, the Trump administration is cutting funding for outreach, cutting funding for enrollment assistance, and dropping out of partnerships to support enrollment, while shrinking the window for people to sign up for coverage, sowing doubts about whether people will be required to have insurance, and making threats that drive up premiums.

So as Trump claims Obamacare is failing, his administration is setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Obamacare supporters are trying to fill the gaps with grassroots programs like the Get Covered campaign, run by former Obama administration officials. But they do not have the same resources as the federal government.

The ideal TV advertising campaign, for example, would cost about $15 million, said Lodes, who is helping to oversee Get Covered. They already know, with mere weeks left until open enrollment starts, that they will not be able to raise that kind of money, which means the hole left by the Trump administration cutting $90 million from the ACA's advertising budget will go largely unfilled.

"There is no way that anything we do or anyone else does can fill the footprint of what the admin should be doing," she said. "They were unable to get repeal passed through the Congress, so they really seem intent to do everything they can do to make sure open enrollment is not successful."

Weak enrollment is a huge threat to Obamacare's future

The inevitable result of the Trump administration's actions will be fewer Americans with health insurance. Last year, 12 million people signed up for coverage through the Obamacare marketplaces. Nobody expects to match that number this year, after open enrollment has been so severely undermined.

"There is no doubt that the actions by the administration will mean that fewer people get covered," Lodes said.

The number of uninsured Americans will likely tick up from its current historic lows. Hundreds of thousands or even millions will not be financially protected against a medical emergency, and it will be harder for them to afford the routine health care that prevents bigger problems later on. That will have a real effort on people's lives and financial security.

But falling enrollment also threatens Obamacare's future.

The law works when younger, healthier people and older, sicker people all sign up for coverage. Insurers need the low-cost patients to help cover the costs of the sicker ones, who are more likely to rack up big medical bills. The ACA has both sticks (the individual mandate) and carrots (cheaper premiums for young people and generous subsidies) to get everybody into the market.

But getting younger and healthier people takes a little more effort. They have been the focus of the outreach that Trump is now cutting.

People who have medical conditions already or who are older and know they may soon need insurance are going to find a way to enroll regardless. But young and healthy people are less likely to think they need insurance. They need some persuading that the ACA's coverage will help them in an unlikely medical event and that they will be able to afford it, Sebelius and Lodes said.

"The last person to sign up is probably the healthiest person to sign up," David Anderson, a former insurance industry official who now researches at Duke University, told me.

With a sicker pool left behind, health insurers are likely to either increase premiums even more next year or leave the market altogether. Plans have already cited the marketing cuts as one reason for increased premiums in 2018. And the higher premiums get, the more difficult it is to persuade young and healthy people to pay the price.

If sign-ups plummet — which even Obamacare supporters expect after the Trump administration has done so much to undermine open enrollment — the law's future will be in serious peril.

"What that means over the long term is the health of the marketplace is at risk," Lodes said.

No matter what the president says, Obamacare isn't failing yet. But his administration is trying as hard as it can to make those words a reality.