Has Obamacare Enrollment Peaked?

Has the effort peaked to sign up uninsured Americans for coverage? The announcement that the nonprofit organization Enroll America is laying off staff and redirecting its focus in the face of funding cuts comes amid inconsistent sign-ups during the second Affordable Care Act open-enrollment period and concerns about affordability.

A recent New York Times analysis compared Kaiser Family Foundation estimates of potential enrollees with sign-up data from the Department of Health and Human Services. While some states that signed up few people in 2014 recovered during the 2015 open enrollment, other states lagged: “California, the state with the most enrollments in 2014, increased them by only one percentage point this year, despite a big investment in outreach. New York improved by only two percentage points. Washington’s rates are unchanged.”

Most states could not post consistent gains in both open-enrollment periods. An official from Avalere Health, a consulting firm, told the Times that she was “starting to wonder if we’ve overestimated the whole thing.”

A recent analysis from Avalere Health demonstrates why the enrollment push may have peaked. The percentage of eligible Americans signing up drops off significantly as income rises and federal subsidies phase out, suggesting that absent subsidies Americans find the exchange insurance products unaffordable or of little value. And if the carrot of federal subsidies has not resulted in expected enrollment, the stick—the mandate to purchase insurance—seems even less effective: The special open-enrollment period to accompany this year’s tax-filing season has resulted in 36,000 sign-ups in the 37 states using HealthCare.gov. But 4 million to 6 million people are expected to pay the mandate tax.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that ACA enrollment will average 11 million individuals, with 8 million receiving subsidies. So far, enrollees reporting incomes above the threshold for subsidies are only 2% of uninsured individuals who have signed up, making it hard to see how the administration can reach CBO’s estimate of 6 million unsubsidized exchange enrollees in 2016. The fact that California, New York, and Washington state achieved only marginal enrollment improvements from 2014 to 2015 does not bode well for achieving CBO’s target of 15 million subsidized enrollees next year—a more than 50% increase from the 9.9 million individuals who qualified for subsidies in 2015.

With outreach efforts scaling back, and many Americans uninterested in ACA coverage absent hefty federal inducements, CBO’s estimate of 21 million enrollees next year seems unlikely to be met. If this year’s results from California and New York are any indication, a good question may be whether 2016 enrollment will grow at all.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.