Planting a paltry number on a national disappointment, the Obama administration revealed Wednesday that just 26,794 people enrolled for health insurance during the first month of operations for the federal Obamacare website.
Add that to the more than 79,000 who enrolled in the 14 states with their own websites and the nationwide number of October sign-ups comes to 106,000 — barely one-fifth of what officials had projected and a small fraction of the millions whose private coverage was canceled as a result of the federal law.
The White House raced to reassure Democrats who are worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago and which seems sure to be a major issue in next year’s campaigns. The administration, trying to regain the initiative, indicated a willingness to consider legislation to stave off the wave of cancellations that’s compounding the website technology problems.
Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program’s future. “We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is in charge.
“Even with the issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling,” Sebelius said.
‘We continue to struggle’
The website problems have vexed people nationwide working to enroll consumers.
At the Shepherd’s Center, a social services center in Kansas City, Mo., workers had signed up eight people for insurance by the end of the first week of November.
“We figured we’d have eight people on the first day, in the first hours,” said Pamela Seymour, the center’s executive director. “We continue to struggle with the site.”
In a hearing Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said, “A delay in the [website] rollout would have made sense.”
But after six weeks of site repairs by a team of government and private IT experts, Health and Human Services has begun asking thwarted applicants to return to the website and try again.
In a telephone briefing Wednesday, Sebelius tried to put the best face on the disappointing start. She said interest appears to be high. Across all the marketplaces, more than 975,000 people have applied for coverage but haven’t selected a plan, according to the enrollment report. Marketplace open enrollment for individual and small-group coverage in 2014 runs until March 31.
“The promise of quality affordable coverage is increasingly becoming reality for this first wave of applicants to the health insurance marketplaces,” Sebelius said. “There is no doubt the level of interest is strong. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months, mirroring the pattern that Massachusetts experienced. We also expect that the numbers will grow as the website, HealthCare.gov, continues to make steady improvements.”
The new enrollment data also found that nearly 400,000 marketplace applicants are eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP. When coupled with the new marketplace enrollees, some 502,446 people are already positioned to gain health coverage in 2014, which would cut the nation’s uninsured to less than 47.5 million.
“That is more than half a million people who, come Jan. 1, will no longer have to choose between paying the utility bill or paying for preventive care, who will no longer have to worry that a surprise illness might result in bankruptcy,” said Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, a national organization working to sign people up.
The administration wants to enroll 7 million people by March 31, but the slow start puts that goal in jeopardy.
“At this pace, the Obama administration will never be able to meet their enrollment goals,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement.
Insurance industry consultant Robert Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates in Alexandria, Va., agreed.
“They are in a deep, deep hole, not just in terms of enrollment but in terms of people having confidence in this program,” Laszewski said. “Cynicism over Obamacare has been growing for the last six weeks. There’s really a negative sense in people’s minds for what Obamacare is that they have to overcome here.”
A host of new proposals from Congress would allow people whose policies were canceled to keep their coverage without penalty. The proposals are coming from Republicans, who strongly oppose the Affordable Care Act, and from nervous Democrats, who fear that the mounting problems could hurt their re-election chances next year.
White House deputy senior adviser David Simas met with House Democrats on Wednesday to discuss the website’s problems. Press secretary Jay Carney acknowledged Democrats’ frustrations, saying they were “similar to the frustration that the president feels.”
“Nobody is satisfied,” Carney said. “Nobody who supports healthcare reform and supports successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act is satisfied with what we’ve seen out of the website and with some of these other problems.”
Hoping to head off a congressional revolt, President Barack Obama is considering an administrative fix that would allow people to keep their individual coverage. Carney said people can expect Obama’s proposal “sooner rather than later.”
While an administrative fix might help, Laszewski said, the law’s credibility has sustained long-term damage.
“They’ve got to get Obamacare off Comedy Central and off Jay Leno before they have a chance of succeeding,” he said.