By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of people enrolled in private health insurance under Obamacare has soared by more than one-third in recent weeks to around 3 million, according to government data released on Friday.
Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), announced the preliminary tally in a blog posting. She forecast that enrollment through new federal and state health insurance marketplaces would continue to grow in coming weeks as a public outreach campaign accelerates.
The new data adds to evidence that President Barack Obama's administration has turned the corner on enrollment after a botched October 1 launch. It also shows that officials might still reach their initial goal of signing up 7 million people for private coverage by the time enrollment ends on March 31.
Analysts say Obama could highlight the 3 million number as a sign of progress when he addresses the topic of healthcare reform in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
The administration did not say how many of the new enrollees are young adults needed to ensure the success of Obamacare. Officials are relying on significant participation among healthy young adults to help offset costs from older enrollees and prevent insurers from raising their rates.
The latest tally is close to the 3.3 million mark that the administration originally expected by January 1 and reflects a January gain of about 800,000 enrollees, or 36 percent, from the 2.2 million total reported earlier this month for the October 1 through December 28 period.
"We can now safely say that the exchanges will be stable," said Topher Spiro of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank aligned with the Obama administration.
The figure was likely to include consumers who sought retroactive January coverage after December 31. At the urging of the Obama administration, some plans have allowed consumers to sign up late for coverage beginning January 1. Maryland's state-run marketplace said on Friday that about 1,400 households have opted for retroactive enrollment through its marketplace.
Earlier this week, the administration also announced that the number of people eligible for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) rose to 6.3 million this month as a result of the enrollment effort. Medicaid and CHIP both benefit poor people and their expansion represents an integral part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
"With millions transitioning to new coverage already, we continue to see strong interest nationwide from consumers who want access to quality, affordable coverage," Tavenner said in a blog posted on a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Web page.
"As our outreach efforts kick into even higher gear, we anticipate these numbers will continue to grow, particularly as we reach even more uninsured young adults."
Tavenner's CMS is the HHS agency responsible for implementing most of the healthcare reform law.
Administration officials have expressed growing confidence in the ultimate success of Obama's signature domestic policy since late last year, when an emergency effort to fix crippling glitches at the federal website, HealthCare.gov, finally allowed millions of people to visit the site and enroll for coverage without incident.
"We made a comeback in December and we're hitting our stride," Dr. Mandy Cohen, a senior adviser to Tavenner, said this week at a conference hosted by the group Families USA, which advocates for healthcare reform.
Much of the success has come from the 15 marketplaces run by states and the District of Columbia. California has reported more than 625,000 private health insurance enrollment since October 1, and New York has announced a daily enrollment pace of 7,000 people for private insurance and Medicaid in January.
But administration officials acknowledge they still have a long way to go.
The Obamacare marketplaces, which have been set up in all 50 states, offer private health insurance with subsidies to help pay premiums and other expenses for people with lower incomes.
But so far, three-quarters of enrollees have been older and sicker policyholders, whose greater need for health services means higher costs for insurers. The administration has said it wants 38 percent of the market to consist of younger adults, aged 18 to 34, whose lower healthcare costs would help keep overall costs in line.
After tackling HealthCare.gov's problems last year, the administration also needs to complete construction of the federal health insurance marketplace that serves 36 states. Many automated functions have yet to be built, including the software application for distributing federal subsidies owed to insurers for covering lower-income consumers.
(Editing by Karey Van Hall, Andre Grenon and Amanda Kwan)