How the CBO's Obamacare Estimates Have Shifted Over the Last Year

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Today in Obamacare news: millions of Americans are getting cheap insurance, but it won't be as cheap for taxpayers as we thought. A new government report found that the average subsidized premium under Obamacare is only $82. But The Los Angeles Times' Noam N. Levey noted that higher than expected enrollment in subsidized private plans "may push the cost of the law considerably above current projections." By Levey's estimate, subsidized premiums will be $6.5 billion more than the Congressional Budget Office estimated in April — but about what was predicted in May of last year. As we've come to see, the actual enrollment numbers and the cost of paying insurance have been difficult to nail down. 

In April 2014, the CBO estimated the government would pay $10 billion for subsidies. But a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 87 percent of federal exchange consumers were eligible for subsidies, costing the government on average $264 a month, per person. Factoring that in, Levey estimated the government is paying $11 billion for federal exchange subsidies and $16.5 billion overall, much more than the most current CBO estimate.

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"Current" is the key word. Levey writes that $16.5 billion would "be more in line with earlier estimates from the budget office, which had been revised downward when analysts believed fewer people would sign up for coverage. In the end, enrollment exceeded expectations."

In that April CBO estimate, they predicted an average of 6 million people would be enrolled in Obamacare throughout the course of the year, with 5 million of those in subsidized plans. (Many will shift in and out as they switch from private to employer-based health insurance, or decide to stop paying premiums.) The CBO said an enrollment at that level would cost the government $10 billion in subsidy payments.

In February, however, the CBO estimated subsidies would cost $13 million for 5 million subsidized plans:

And way back in May 2013, the CBO estimated that 6 million people would enroll in subsidized plans (out of 7 million total) and that would cost $16 billion in subsidy payments.

What does that mean for Obamacare's impact on the deficit? We don't know, really. Earlier this month the CBO announced that it can no longer estimate Obamacare's total cost, in part due to changes in health care and the economy, but also due to ever-changing rules in the law's implementation. As Vox's Adrianna McIntyre explained, it's not unusual for the CBO to back off on predictions once a law has been implemented. "There's a reason CBO doesn't fiddle around with" post-implementation scoring, McIntyre wrote, "The numbers get much harder to tease out once a new policy is set in motion."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.