More people signing up for Obamacare despite its uncertain fate

Pedro Rojas holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, on February 5, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than 818,000 people signed up for Obamacare plans for 2021 in the first week of open enrollment, according to federal data released Thursday evening. This comes despite the uncertain fate of the law.

The pace is somewhat ahead of last year's initial days but does not show a huge surge of interest amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn. Enrollment is also taking place as the Supreme Court considers whether to invalidate the decade-old law. Justices heard oral arguments in the case on Tuesday but appeared to signal that the Affordable Care Act will survive the latest GOP challenge.

A coalition of Republican state attorneys general led by Texas and joined by the Trump administration are arguing that the individual mandate is unconstitutional because Congress reduced the penalty for not having health insurance to zero as part of the 2017 Republican tax cuts -- and that the entire law must fall as a result.

That did not deter some Americans in search of coverage. An average of 116,900 people picked plans on the federal exchange each day in the first seven days of enrollment this year, compared with 103,600 on average who selected policies daily in the first nine days last year.

This year's data does not include New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which set up their own enrollment platforms for 2021. Some 36 states are using the federal exchange, healthcare.gov.

The rate of new customers signing up trails last year's pace slightly, but a greater share of existing customers opted to renew coverage. Those who lost job-based coverage could sign up for Obamacare policies during the year.

Some 3.1 million people are estimated to have lost work-based health insurance plans between late March/early April and mid- to late September, according to an Urban Institute report released Monday. Many of them shifted to Medicaid or individual market policies, such as those found on the Obamacare exchanges.

Open enrollment runs through December 15 on the federal exchange; several states that run their own marketplaces have later deadlines.

"It's too soon, especially during such an extraordinary year, to draw meaningful conclusions about how the remainder of open enrollment will unfold, but considering all of the unique factors at play this year, this is a strong start to open enrollment," former Obama administration official Joshua Peck said in a Medium post. Peck is a co-founder of Get America Covered, which seeks to boost enrollment in the Affordable Care Act.

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