Obama admin. posts low health care signups

By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and LAURIE KELLMAN Published: November 13, 2013
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Putting a statistic on disappointment, the Obama administration revealed Wednesday that fewer than 27,000 people signed up for private health insurance last month in the 36 states relying on a problem-filled federal website.

States running their own enrollment systems did better, signing up more than 79,000, for a total enrollment of over 106,000.

Still, that was barely one-fifth of the nearly 500,000 people administration officials had projected would sign up the first month of Obama's signature program, a numerical rebuke to the administration's ability to deliver on its promise. The 106,185 people who made it all the way through to selecting a plan represent just 1.5 percent of the 7 million people the administration hopes to enroll by next year.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said things will get better, and quickly. “There is no doubt the level of interest is strong,” she said.

The administration said an additional 1 million or so applicants have been found eligible for government-subsidized private coverage in new state-level insurance markets, and about half are within sight of having their plans lined up for the start of next year. An additional 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, the safety-net program that is shaping up as the health care law's early success story.

The numbers landed amid a political storm on Capitol Hill. Democrats who had hoped to run for re-election next year on the success of the health care law are increasingly worried.

It's not only the website woes, but a wave of cancellation notices hitting constituents whose individual health insurance policies don't measure up to the law's requirements. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled an all-Democrats meeting Thursday with White House health care officials.

The administration has staked its credibility on turning the website around by the end of this month. From the president on down, officials have said that HealthCare.gov will be running smoothly for the vast majority of users by Nov. 30.

Some outside experts are concerned. “People are starting to get nervous because there is not enough indication from the government that things are on track,” said Caroline Pearson, who runs the health reform practice at Avalere Health, a market analysis firm. “You wonder if there are still underlying programming problems that are causing the system to shut down when volume is high.”

Administration officials have not specified what “running smoothly” means, or what would constitute the “vast majority” of users.

On daily media calls, Health and Human Services department officials have described a situation where problems get fixed and then new issues crop up as consumers are able to venture further into the website. It's a bit like traffic heading back to a city late on a summer Sunday: You get past one jam, and odds are you run into another.

There was a hopeful sign this Tuesday when Julie Bataille, HHS communications director for the rollout, said that 275,000 people who got hung up in the early days are being invited back to try to complete their applications. The administration is sending the email invitations in batches, so as not to risk any disruptions. White House chief technology officer Todd Park told Congress on Wednesday that system response times are much faster, and error rates have plunged.

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