Health

Health care sign-ups far below expectations

Just over 106,000 people enrolled through HealthCare.gov and state systems

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (in a file photo) said that despite lower-than-projected sign-up numbers, things will get better.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Obama administration revealed Wednesday that fewer than 27,000 people had signed up for private health insurance last month in the 36 states relying on the federal website that has been beset by persistent glitches. 

States running their own enrollment systems — including California, which had over 35,000 people enroll — fared better by signing up more than 79,000, for a total enrollment of over 106,000 between Oct. 1 through Nov. 2, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

MORE: Read the full HHS report here (PDF)

Nonetheless, that was barely one-fifth of the nearly 500,000 people administration officials had projected would sign up in the first month of President Barack Obama's signature program, and, as such, represented a numerical rebuke to the administration's ability to deliver on its promise. The 106,185 who successfully selected a plan represent just 1.5 percent of the 7 million people the administration hopes to enroll by next year.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said things will improve, despite the disappointing numbers.

"People tend to research and consider their options before they make a purchase," she said during a press call Wednesday. "As more people learn more, people will find a plan that meets their needs and budget."

Sebelius indicated that enrollment numbers will improve with a greater outreach effort and improvements to the much-maligned website.

"We have every reason to believe more people will enroll," she said. 

HHS said 1,509,883 people have applied for coverage and that the marketplaces have processed eligibility determinations and assessments for 1,477,853, or 98 percent, of those people. 

Of that figure, 396,261 have been established as eligible either for Medicaid, the safety-net program that is shaping up as the health care law's early success story, or CHIP, the state-administered program that provides health coverage to millions of children in families whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid but who cannot afford private coverage. 

Addressing website woes

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard on Wednesday from the White House’s chief technology officer, who said the troubled health insurance website was getting better by the day. 

Todd Park said HealthCare.gov could now handle about 17,000 account registrations an hour, and page response times were under one second. 

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

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

"There's no doubt that the early experience with HealthCare.gov was enormously frustrating," said Sebelius, who later added that “the experience today is significantly better than it was on Nov. 1 and quite a bit better than it was in October."

Park, however, stopped short of saying the site would be fixed by the end of the month. "The team is working really hard to hit that goal, and that's what I'm able to say right now," he testified.

The difficult launch of HealthCare.gov has given opposition Republicans a new line of attack against the law, which they unsuccessfully tried to derail last month in a fight that led to a 16-day partial government shutdown.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement Wednesday after the release of the enrollment data, saying that "above all, this report is a symbol of the failure of the president's health care law. It is a rolling calamity that must be scrapped." Republicans hope to use momentum from the troubled launch in next year's midterm elections. Democrats, meanwhile, had hoped to point to the health care program's success.

Keeping the promise

The public's disappointment with the new system, however, is not limited to website woes. A wave of cancellation notices have hit constituents whose individual health insurance policies don't measure up to the law's requirements.   

Amid criticism that he had broken his promise that those who want to keep their old plans will be able to, the president apologized last week for not being clearer in his statements about the law. But the apology did little to tamp down a wave of criticism of him.

On Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton told the Web magazine Ozymandias that Obama should support a change to fulfill his promise. "I personally believe, even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got," Clinton said. 

Hours after the former president's comments, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that although the White House has long resisted alterations to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should be open to "constructive changes" to improve the law. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., issued a statement shortly afterward, saying that she would join Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in sponsoring a bill that would allow Americans to keep their current insurance plans, even if the plans do not meet the new law's standards for coverage. 

"Too many Americans are struggling to make ends meet," Feinstein said in a statement. "We must ensure that in our effort to reform the healthcare system, we do not allow unintended consequences to go unaddressed." 

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with wire services

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