Clock winds down on enrollment but not on Obamacare's political fight

By: CBS
By: CBS

Washington, DC (CBS) - March 31 has finally arrived, and with it comes the last official day for people to sign up for health insurance on the federal exchange websites.

The deadline, of course, isn't a hard one: the administration announced last week that people who started to apply for health insurance by the deadline but didn't finish the process will still be able to get coverage.

Just as enrollment doesn't close for good on Monday, the fight over Obamacare will hardly be settled by the coming and going of the end of the month. Opposing the health care law is still the status quo among Republicans, and there are no signs they'll stop trying to hang the issue around Democrats' necks during the upcoming midterm elections.

The administration said last week that more than 6 million people had signed up for coverage through the new insurance marketplace, though it is estimated that fewer than that have actually paid their first premiums. Even with that small victory - hitting a revised goal for enrollment - Republicans aren't ready to give an inch of ground to suggest the law has worked.

On Fox News Sunday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said on "Fox News Sunday" that the administration is "cooking the books" on the enrollment numbers, which were meaningless.

"Once all of this is said and done, what kind of insurance will those people actually have? Will they be able to keep the doctors that they want? How much more is it going to cost them?" Barrasso asked.

He's not alone. The Republican National Committee stands ready to poke holes in any measure of success the administration might claim, warning that it hasn't attracted sufficient numbers of uninsured Americans or young people, that the enrollment figures don't represent people who have paid for their new plans, and charging that the administration has not been forthcoming about the penalty of $95 or 1 percent of income that people who don't sign up for insurance will have to pay.

Democrats are attempting to focus their midterm election message on ways to improve income inequality, but the passage of the Obamacare enrollment deadline may only offer a brief respite from the storm. In less than two months, insurers must submit their 2015 rate proposals to government regulators, which could lead to a fresh firestorm of criticism if those increases are too high. One company, WellPoint Inc., said it might see increases of double digits in its plans earlier this month. That's much more than the "less significant" increases Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said might occur when she testified on Capitol Hill this month.

If WellPoint's predictions are correct, it would prove disastrous for Democrats just months before the midterm elections -- especially vulnerable lawmakers who are under heavy fire for their support of the law.

Overall disapproval of the law has remained fairly steady throughout the open enrollment period, making it unlikely the law will see an uptick in popularity once the deadline passes. People who disapprove of the law also feel more strongly, making them more likely to show up for lawmakers who want to alter or repeal the law.

And when Americans file their 2014 tax returns in 2015, the people who have chosen not to sign up for insurance will also find out just how high the penalty is, which could spark another round of frustration with the law just as Democratic presidential candidates are getting their campaigns under way.

Even with the passage of the deadline, the era of Democrats worrying about the law is far from over.

"They can hope that the economy improves greatly between now and then. That's about the only thing that's going to take the focus off of that," said Cook Political Report National Editor Amy Walter on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday.
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