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Only 106,000: Obamacare enrollment falls far short of goal

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Only about 106,000 Americans enrolled in Obamacare's health care exchanges during the first month and fewer than 27,000 of those were from the federally run exchanges, the administration said Wednesday, finally releasing numbers showing just how rocky the rollout has been for President Obama's signature initiative.

The administration needs about 7 million people to enroll by the end of March, or an average of more than 1 million a month. October's figure is little more than 10 percent of that monthly goal.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius vowed to do better, blaming the first-month numbers on the glitchy HealthCare.gov website that the federal government set up to help consumers in 36 states buy insurance.

Still, she claimed victory from the fact that some people were able to sign up.

"The marketplace is working, people are enrolling," Mrs. Sebelius told reporters on a conference call.

But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the administration is "overinflating the numbers by including folks shopping for a plan — not just looking at who's signed up."

"At this pace," he said, "the Obama administration will never be able to meet their enrollment goals."

Officials said 106,185 people had selected a health care plan on either the federal exchange system or one of 15 state-based health care exchanges from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2.

The numbers were released after Republicans on the House's top investigative committee dug into a laundry list of technical problems plaguing the federal website and the administration sought to allay growing anxiety among Democrats about the millions of Americans being knocked off their insurance plans despite President Obama's oft-repeated vow that "if you like your health insurance, you can keep it."

After a Capitol Hill meeting with Democrats, the White House said it would consider legislation to thwart the cancellations and went as far as to praise a proposal by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, that would allow people to keep their policies.

Republicans and even some Democrats pursued a plan to delay the deadline for buying insurance.

On Wednesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, introduced a two-month extension for enrollment and for the individual mandate penalty, which requires enrollment by year's end.

"It's not fair to penalize people for not having health insurance because of a broken website," she said.

The administration predicted a slow start, but Republican critics said enrollment was still well shy of Mr. Obama's goal of nearly 500,000 enrollees in the first month — a figure outlined in an internal memo circulated on Capitol Hill.

The administration said overall interest was high, even if enrollment wasn't. They said nearly 1.1 million people have logged on and been deemed eligible to enroll in an Obamacare plan.

The exchanges are state-based markets where individuals without insurance can shop for plans, often with the aid of government subsidies.

The administration hoped most states would run their own exchanges, but only 14 plus the District of Columbia chose to, leaving the federal government to run the rest. Consumers in those states have had to navigate the glitch-filled federal website, or apply in person or through the mail.

Of those who did enroll, roughly a third — 35,364 — came from California, the most populous state in the nation. New York contributed the second-highest number, with 16,404. Both of those states are running their own exchanges.

All told, state-run exchanges contributed 79,391 enrollees, compared with 26,794 from the federal system.

Texas and Florida, relying on the federal government to run their exchanges, accounted for 2,991 and 3,571 enrollees, respectively.

HHS officials said the enrollment figures reflect those who have selected plans but may or may not have made their first payments to the insurers.

The administration has vowed that the federal website will be working smoothly for the "vast majority" of users by the end of this month, and they hope many consumers will return to the site in December to have coverage at the beginning of next year.

That is when the individual mandate will require all Americans to have coverage. Penalties won't be assessed until after three consecutive months without coverage, meaning March 31 is the effective deadline.

The Congressional Budget Office projected 7 million people would enroll on the exchanges during Obamacare's inaugural period, from Oct. 1 through March 31.

The exchanges and the optional state-by-state expansion of Medicaid benefits are key pillars of the health care law, which Democratic majorities muscled through Congress in 2010.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Wednesday that the White House made a "monumental mistake" by hurtling forward with Obamacare's Web-based markets Oct. 1 only to see the portals "effectively explode on the launchpad."

Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, told Mr. Issa's committee that the agency underestimated the number of users who would log on to the federal website at the same time. The agency added capacity, but "unanticipated technical problems surfaced."

"Some of those problems have been resolved, and the site is functioning much better than it did initially," Mr. Chao told the committee.

Republican critiques have shifted over time, starting with the federal website's glitches before turning to the millions of Americans who will lose their health care plans because they don't meet minimum-coverage standards.

While some Democrats are frustrated with the delays, others preach patience.

"As access to the website improves, millions of Americans will see the quality, affordable coverage available to them on the marketplaces," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Wednesday.

HHS did not report any enrollment data from state-run exchanges in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts or Oregon.

However, D.C. Health Link said Wednesday that 1,115 account holders had selected health care plans, and 565 of them requested invoices.

Only 42 North Dakotans enrolled through the federal exchange, the lowest state total among states for which data are available.

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