Why Extending The Obamacare Deadline Could Hurt Democrats In 2014

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With HealthCare.gov’s problems piling up last week, a small coalition of Democratic senators formally urged the Obama administration to extend the deadline for enrolling in a health plan beyond March 31, 2014, which is when the enrollment period ends now. They said that, given the website’s problems, an extension only makes sense. People should be given enough time to sign up for coverage.

The insurance industry is lobbying senators to give up that fight, saying that it would be bad actuarial policy. But there’s another, more nakedly political element to the pitch: New higher rates for 2015 would become public right before the 2014 elections.

In other words, the message to lawmakers behind closed doors is: Be careful what you wish for.

Industry sources told TPM that those electoral considerations would be communicated to lawmakers in the coming weeks, though they declined to go on the record to talk about it.

Here’s why an enrollment extension could be bad for Democrats in the midterm elections. Insurers insist that an extension would skew their risk pools toward older, sicker people and force them to hike premiums for 2015 to make up for it — and outside experts back them up on the actuarial risks. If that happened, the increased premium rates would likely be released some time in September — October at the latest — according to the guidance that the Obama administration has given to insurers.

So with less than two months until the election, “rate shock” associated with Obamacare could be dominating the news cycle. There’s no way that would be good for the Democratic candidates, these industry sources argue.

“I guarantee that we’re going to make that point to them,” one source said.

Seven of the 10 Democratic senators who signed a letter advocating for an enrollment extension are up for reelection in 2014: Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Mark Begich (AK), Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Udall (CO), and Tom Udall (NM).

The political variables at play are admittedly complex. Right now, it might make sense for those senators to endorse an enrollment extension. No one is happy with the marketplace rollout, and asking the White House to give people some relief would appear to have little downside at the moment.

But it’s unclear if those senators have gamed this out to next fall, to the point outlined by the industry where that endorsement could potentially backfire. TPM asked several of the senators’ offices for comment, but they declined to discuss the issue in detail.

“Senator Shaheen understands that to make healthcare affordable, we need as many people in the insurance markets as possible,” Shaheen spokeswoman Elizabeth Kenigsberg said in an emailed statement to TPM. “She believes that extending the enrollment period in light of the problems with the marketplace website is the practical fix to give consumers more time to enroll in coverage.”

Matt Canter, deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, acknowledged to TPM that this could be “a legitimate concern” for Democratic candidates. But he asserted that the party’s position of fixing Obamacare would be more appealing to voters than the Republican push to dismantle the law.

“Voters don’t make any decision in a vacuum. It’s a vote between the two people on the ballot and the contrast between those two people,” Canter said. “All the polls show that the Republican alternative is polling at an all-time low. A majority wants to make this law work.”

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