Mystery shrouds plans for release of ObamaCare enrollment data

The Obama administration said it will publish Affordable Care Act enrollment data next week, but has repeatedly refused to disclose which figures it plans to release. [WATCH VIDEO]

The silence from federal health officials raises the possibility that they will release a single sign-up number that fails to shed light on how the enrollment effort is really proceeding.

The long-awaited disclosure will come as the White House works to quell a political firestorm over both real and perceived problems with its healthcare reform rollout.

President Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, met with top insurance executives Tuesday and asked them to explain cancellation letters their customers have received in the mail.

A foggy, imprecise data release would signal a continued effort by the administration to control the flow of details about the healthcare law in the face of an unfriendly news cycle.

“There is a political battle underway and information is one of the weapons,” said Steven Aftergood, an advocate for government transparency with the Federation of American Scientists. “They are not interested in public exposure that could be politically disadvantageous in the short term.”

The much-anticipated report will follow six weeks of pressure from media organizations and political opponents hoping to learn the enrollment numbers.

The issue has added significance as the federal online sign-up portal continues to struggle under a raft of technical flaws.

Next week’s release will provide the first clear gauge of interest in ObamaCare coverage and point to whether the site’s problems are creating a drag on enrollment.

The administration insists that any initial lag can and will be rectified in the next five months as patients rush to sign up before enrollment deadlines.

Defenders also note that any less-than-stellar data will provide fodder for ObamaCare’s enemies, just as mediocre job reports open the administration to criticism every month.

There is a strong desire for details among the media and healthcare experts.

So far, federal health officials have touted more than 700,000 applications under ObamaCare — but failed to say how many resulted in enrollments.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also has not said how many applications were for private insurance on the exchanges and how many were for Medicaid, a cheaper alternative.

The distinction illustrates why any single enrollment number from the HHS would be hard to decipher next week.

Most of the focus will rest with the new insurance exchanges, the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act and a crucial barometer of the law’s success.

But enrollment trends vary widely across the country and among the various state- and federally run exchanges.

In some places, Medicaid sign-ups are strong while the marketplaces appear to be lagging. And several state-based exchanges are understood to be running more smoothly than their federal counterparts.

A single sign-up figure would iron over these distinctions, encompassing not only Medicaid and marketplace enrollments but people buying coverage in states and through HealthCare.gov.

Asked Tuesday whether the Health agency would provide a detailed breakdown, Medicare and Medicaid spokeswoman Julie Bataille ducked the question.

“We’re focused on making sure we can provide reliable, accurate data in all our reports moving forward, so that’s what we’ll do,” Bataille said on a conference call with reporters.

The exchange-versus-Medicaid division is just one of many details vital to understanding the progress of the sign-up effort.

Timothy Jost, a leading healthcare academic and supporter of the Affordable Care Act, said demographic details are necessary to gain a sense of the evolving risk pools.

Some insurers have reported that the initial wave of enrollees appears to be closer to retirement age.

“People who are most likely to be enrolling at this point are older and sicker and higher cost,” Jost said.

“I expect that to change pretty dramatically by March ... but none of it would look very good right now from the perspective of where we’re hoping to get with the exchange.”

Federal health officials have given a few indications of what they hope to see in terms of enrollment numbers.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 7 million would be covered by state and federal insurance exchanges in 2014.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said Tuesday that the HHS hopes to enroll 800,000 people by the end of the month.

This figure encompasses both private insurance and Medicaid sign-ups, the department later clarified.

White House officials have also sought to lower expectations ahead of next week’s report, especially after documents released by congressional Republicans suggested that only six enrollments took place on the exchanges’ first day, Oct. 1.

“I can promise you that the first enrollment numbers which will be released later this month are not going to be what we want them to be. There’s no question about that,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told ABC News on Sunday.

“The website hasn’t worked the way we want it to work. But we take responsibility for that,” Pfeiffer said.