Obama administration on low enrollment numbers: ‘The marketplace is working’

Olivier Knox & Liz Goodwin
Yahoo News
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Fewer than 27,000 Americans signed up for insurance on the glitch-plagued healthcare.gov website in the month of October, putting the Obama administration far below its own target for the program’s rollout.

An additional 79,391 people enrolled in insurance in the 15 states and District of Columbia that run their own exchanges, which have been plagued by fewer tech problems. Still, the cumulative 106,000 people who signed up for insurance comes in far below the half a million enrollees the Obama administration had projected in the first month, according to internal memos cited on Captiol Hill. And some of the 106,000 people have chosen a plan and put it in their shopping cart but not yet paid the first month's premium.

On a call with reporters, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she is “confident” the numbers will rise soon, noting that an additional 975,000 people have applied for insurance on the site, but have not yet enrolled.

“The marketplace is working, people are enrolling,” Sebelius said.

At one point, only three out of 10 people who tried to apply on the federal exchange site were able to get through due to multiple glitches and technical problems. Sebelius reiterated that the Obama administration hopes the site will be working smoothly by the end of November, after hiring outside experts to perform a “tech surge” to fix it. Nearly a third of the people who signed up for insurance on the federal exchange in October did so using a paper application.

“We do want to invite back people who started the process….to come back in and try again,” Sebelius said. The secretary also stressed that other major health care programs—including Massachusetts' health care reform in 2006 and Medicare Part D—had initially low enrollment rates before applications began flooding in.

Participation varied widely by state: Only 53 people in Alaska selected a plan on the marketplace, compared to 35,364 in California, which runs its own exchange.

Federal budget officials predicted that 7 million people would sign up on the exchanges by March 31, when open enrollment closes. In order to work, more than 2 million of them must be young, healthy people to offset older and sicker participants. The government did not release demographic data on the enrollees.

Enrollment in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program has been more popular than private insurance so far, with nearly 400,000 people enrolling in those programs in the past month. (Some states expanded their low-income Medicaid program under the health care law.)

Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, told reporters the site’s error rate is down to 1 percent, and that they expect people will be able to apply and enroll “in one sitting” by the end of November.

Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, said she believes the enrollment numbers show that there is demand for the insurance, but that the “maddening” website is preventing people from purchasing it. Pollitz said it’s a good sign for the administration that 975,000 people applied and checked their eligibility for health care, despite the site’s long waits.

“A million people don’t just do that because they’ve got nothing better to do,” Pollitz told Yahoo News. “I think they’re serious.” 

The numbers poured fuel on the political fire threatening to consume the president’s signature domestic policy achievement. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said the data “is a symbol of the failure of the president’s health care law. It is a rolling calamity that must be scrapped.”

Increasing numbers of congressional Democrats have embraced legislation aimed at making Obama’s false promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep it” retroactively true.

White House press secretary Jay Carney promised Wednesday before the numbers were released that the administration will unveil its own fix “sooner rather than later” while warning against any legislative steps that it claims would undermine the law, perhaps fatally.

Carney admitted that low initial enrollment numbers could demoralize Americans who are seeking to buy insurance. “There's no question we've made our work harder for us,” Carney said.