The administration will most likely fall short of its original enrollment goals for the new Obamacare marketplaces, but President Obama thinks enough people are enrolling to prop up the new insurance marketplace.
"The pool is already large enough," Mr. Obama said in an interview with the medical website WebMD, published Friday. "I'm confident the program will be stable."
The president's remarks come amid criticism of the way his administration is handling the individual mandate -- a policy that the White House says is critical to sustaining the marketplace.
About 4.2 million Americans had signed up for an Obamacare plan by the end of February, and millions more are expected to sign up before open enrollment ends on March 31. Without a sufficient pool of enrollees, the marketplace runs the risk being too small to attract sufficient competition. Additionally, too few young enrollees, who tend to be healthier, would cause premiums to increase for everyone in the marketplace. The president, however, told WebMD that this won't be a problem.
"What you'll find, I think, is that the marketplace will be stable and the premiums are going to be reflective of the fact there are already a lot of people who've signed up," he said. "The larger these marketplaces get -- a year from now, two years from now, three years from now -- as the program develops, potentially that brings the cost down even more."
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday said that at least next year, premiums are "likely to go up."
"I think premiums are likely to go up, but at a smaller pace than what we've seen since 2010," she told the House Ways and Means Committee.
Sebelius reiterated to the committee that she believes the individual mandate -- the requirement that just about all Americans obtain health insurance or pay a fine -- is necessary for the new marketplaces to work. Without a mandate, the argument goes, people would only get insurance after becoming sick, now that insurers can no longer discriminate against customers with pre-existing conditions -- that would create a marketplace full of sick people, driving up costs.
With the deadline for open enrollment on the new Obamacare marketplaces approaching, lawmakers are taking a closer look at the individual mandate.
On Friday, the Republican led-House passed a bill that included a five-year delay of the penalty imposed on those who don't follow the mandate. The bill passed 238 to 181 with 12 Democrats voting in favor it.
The White House, however, has issued a veto threat against the bill. "This legislation would result in higher numbers of uninsured Americans, higher premiums for those who remain insured, and fewer premium tax credits for middle-income families, and would increase cost-shifting of uncompensated care to health care providers, workers, and businesses," the White House said.
Conservatives counter the White House is being hypocritical -- the administration itself has left open a broad window for consumers looking for exemptions from the mandate.
Last week, the administration extended a policy-fix for people who have been dropped from insurance plans that are no-longer Obamacare-compliant. That means, in part, that the administration will issue an exemption from the mandate to those who were dropped from their plans and have had trouble finding a new plan.
Republicans said the administration was undermining its own policies.
"Quietly, without any fanfare, there's a real question about whether the White House has just abandoned the individual mandate, the heart of Obamacare itself," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. "This is a huge public policy decision that could affect millions of Americans."
The administration has responded by pointing out that from the beginning, the law included "hardship" exemptions.
"The hardship exemption was part of the law from the outset," Sebelius said this week. "There were some very specific rationale there, and it starts with the notion that, if you cannot afford coverage, you are not obligated to provide to buy coverage."
Indeed, after the Obamacare marketplaces opened in October, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services predicted that as many as 12 million people would apply for a hardship exemption.
It's true, though, that the administration has on multiple occasions now opened up the hardship exemption to more people than initially anticipated. Last year, after it became clear several states wouldn't be expanding Medicaid services, the administration said they'd grant exemptions to people who fall in the "Medicaid gap."