ObamaCare sprints across finish line

ObamaCare sprints across finish line
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The end to this year's ObamaCare signup season at midnight on Sunday is expected to add more than 11 million people to its rolls, putting the administration ahead of its own expectations.

While the second year of ObamaCare has been just as high-stakes as last year, the enrollment drive has been met with far less fanfare.

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The drive was rarely splashed on front pages and was touted by few big-name endorsements, until the president’s last-minute BuzzFeed hit this week that has already tallied more than 25 million views.

Healthcare advocates say the quieter enrollment period – largely devoid of politics  – has been good news for ObamaCare.

“Last year, it was in the news a lot – particularly the website problems – and I think there was still a lot of the fear of what the ACA [Affordable Care Act] is,” said Erin Hemlin, who leads healthcare outreach for the nonprofit group Young Invincibles. “It was such a political issue. I think a lot of that has gone away this year.”

This year’s enrollment tally is around 10 million so far – not including all the state signups – and already vastly exceeds last year’s totals, which finished at 7.1 million.

Much of ObamaCare’s success in its second year is the result of its more robust HealthCare.gov website and its more targeted outreach to groups such as millennials and Hispanics.

Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, said the large-scale national outreach has been replaced at the local level. With fewer mentions in the country’s biggest newspapers, her organization is seeing more coverage from local outlets.

“It is moving from something that was a national, D.C.-based implementation to something that's really been in communities,” she said.“ We have seen a decrease in national clips but a really significant increase on a local level.”

When Enroll America held an event at the Alamodome in San Antonio last year, lines wrapped around the stadium. This year, the group instead held 10 smaller events at clinics serving the Latino community throughout the city.

The group is planning more than 275 enrollment events in 93 cities this weekend alone.

The events by Enroll America and other grassroots groups are part of an “all-out sprint to the finish line” ahead of Feb. 15, one administration official said. The official said more than 1,400 events were planned in the final two weeks.

Last year, there was fevered speculation about whether the administration would reach its goal of 7 million. President Obama later marked the major milestone with a speech in the Rose Garden.

This year, the administration easily passed its 9.1 million goal at the end of January.

Enrollment in ObamaCare’s second year was universally expected to be better than in 2013, when a mess of technical glitches prevented millions from logging on to HealthCare.gov.

Still, the administration faced intense pressure this year as it managed the re-enrollment process for the first time as well as the first round of penalties for people who didn’t buy insurance.

Again this year, the Department of Health and Human Services has run a multi-million dollar ad blitz to promote signups in every state. This time, however, it was far more focused on populations least likely to be insured.

HHS nearly tripled the amount of dollars spent to reach Spanish speakers, relying on networks TeleMundo and Univision, sports channels and running ads during popular telenovelas. And to reach black communities, the government paid for ads during NFL games on Fox, NBC, and ESPN, as well as on hip hop and rap stations on Pandora and Radio One.

While the administration has tapped far fewer celebrity surrogates like Kerry Washington and Russell Wilson to promote ObamaCare this year, White House leaders from Obama to Jill Biden have helped to get the word out.

First lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama: We raise men to feel 'entitled' Michelle Obama: 'Don't tweet every thought' Michelle Obama, Prince Harry visit public school in Chicago MORE held calls with hundreds of faith leaders and leaders of the LGBT community while Jill Biden hosted calls with community college presidents.

Democrats have cheered the enrollment tallies, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday declaring that the figures have “exceeded expectations.”

Even with an improved website and expanded staff this year, though, HHS officials last fall said they were only expecting about 9.1 million to sign up, rather than the 13 million projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in its analysis in April 2014.

Some health policy experts speculated that HHS intentionally set the bar lower to ensure that the number could be surpassed.

But there are now signs that the administration could still come close to the goal, with ObamaCare numbers guru Charles Gaba predicting 12.5 million signups by Sunday at midnight. 

--This report was updated at 12:57 p.m.