Obama to stress Massachusetts’s health care example in Boston speech

Liz Goodwin

Following another week of tech problems marring the rollout of his signature health law, President Barack Obama will tout Massachusetts’ 8-year-old health care overhaul in a speech in Boston on Wednesday.

Obama will argue in his speech at Faneuil Hall — where then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed the state’s health care reform bill in 2006 — that uninsured people were slow to enroll in Massachusetts’ exchanges when they first opened, before a flood of applicants rolled in at the last minute.

The White House is expecting a similar show of procrastination to give way to a surge of applications to the Obamacare exchanges shortly before Dec. 15 — the deadline to sign up for coverage to start Jan. 1. The open enrollment period ends on March 31, and uninsured people who don’t purchase coverage by that date will have to pay a fine on their 2014 taxes.

Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economics professor and an architect of the Massachusetts health care law, told reporters on a conference call organized by the White House on Tuesday that fewer than 150 people enrolled for Massachusetts’ health care exchange in its first month. By the end of the year, 36,000 people had enrolled.

“The success of health care reform needs to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks,” Gruber said. “We didn’t freak out about daily or weekly movements. And we recognized this would ramp up slowly.”

The analogy between Romneycare and Obamacare isn't perfect, however, because richer people who did not qualify for state subsidies to purchase insurance were not included in Massachusetts' initial exchange. But the trend still shows that uninsured people tend to want to shop around and wait until the last minute before making the "grudge" purchase.

The technical problems with HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange site that runs insurance plans for 36 states, are likely to only exacerbate that tendency for consumers to procrastinate, as they may want to wait out the glitches.

The Obama administration hasn’t said how many people have officially enrolled on the exchanges that opened on Oct. 1. As of last week, 700,000 people had set up accounts and applied for insurance, including people signing up for Medicaid in the states that expanded the program. Site-wide major glitches, however, prevented many people from shopping for and enrolling in plans.

The White House says the website will be fully operational by the end of November, nearly two months after its initial launch.

The insurance exchanges need millions of young, healthy people to sign up in order to offset the costs of older and sicker people who are expected to purchase coverage.