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Obamacare enrollment up 24% in Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 145,000 Utahns signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act this year, a 24 percent jump from the same point last year.

That's the largest bump in enrollments in the nation, out of 39 states with federally facilitated marketplaces.

Jason Stevenson of the Utah Health Policy Project said the strong enrollment numbers are evidence the Affordable Care Act is still popular among Utahns.

"Health insurance has been politicized in Washington D.C., but it's still a very important basic need for families around the country," Stevenson said.

People have rushed to sign up for health plans on the exchange since open enrollment started in November, even as Republicans promise to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Across the U.S., enrollment figures are up by about 7 percent, according to figures released by the Obama administration on Wednesday.

HealthCare.gov had its biggest day ever on Dec. 15, with roughly 670,000 sign-ups, according to Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell. Approximately 6.4 million consumers had signed up for plans on healthcare.gov as of Monday.

Stevenson said he's unsure why Utah's growth is so strong compared to the rest of the nation.

One theory could be the state's large number of children, he said. Twenty-three percent of enrollees in Utah are children compared to 9 percent nationally.

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Parents with kids are "reliable, consistent consumers, because health insurance is not just about protecting themselves, it's about protecting their families," Stevenson said.

Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute, described the surge as a "mini-run" on Obamacare.

"I don't see it as any newfound love affair with Obamacare," Matheson said.

"Going into 2017, a lot of folks are just trying to make sure they have certainty in that area of their life. There's also the scarcity mentality of, 'This is going away. I want to make sure I'm getting what I can get when I can get it,'" Matheson added.

He also wondered whether more people were being forced to choose new plans because their previous plans were canceled or they had lost their jobs.

Stevenson said he didn't think that was likely. Most people whose plans are canceled are automatically re-enrolled in a new one, he said, and those enrollments are not counted in the latest figures.

President-elect Donald Trump and Republican leaders have repeatedly vowed to dismantle the law, although it’s not clear what they will replace it with.

Republicans in Congress have reached out to governors and insurance commissioners in Utah and other states for input.

One challenge will be coming up with a solution for the roughly 20 million Americans who have gained health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

About 135,000 Utahns stand to lose health care coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed without a replacement, including 5,000 young adults who are on their parents' plans, according to Charles Gaba, the founder of ACASignups.net.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a recent op-ed that Republicans have a responsibility to provide a transition period "for however many years" for the market to stabilize as Obamacare is rolled back.

Matheson said both parties have to put their heads together to come up with a replacement that will ensure the most vulnerable are protected.

"I don't think the American people voted for a conservative or a liberal agenda for health care," Matheson said. "I think they voted for disruption. And this is what disruption looks like."

Take Care Utah

This network of 90 navigators and enrollment specialists offers statewide enrollment help for health insurance. Visit takecareutah.org or call 211 for free help.

Americans have until Jan. 15 to sign for coverage to start in February. The deadline to avoid fines is Jan. 31.

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com Twitter: DaphneChen_

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