Low numbers for ObamaCare

Only 106,185 people picked out private health plans under ObamaCare in its first month, well below the administration’s expectations.

Federal officials announced Wednesday that 26,794 of those people had enrolled through HealthCare.gov, the error-ridden online system that has turned the rollout of the health insurance exchanges into a political nightmare for President Obama.

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Details about those people remain scarce. The administration provided no information on the demographic makeup of the initial enrollees, including their ages and whether they had paid their first premium, the threshold for full enrollment.

The marketplaces need to enroll millions of people in order for insurance premiums to remain stable, including a significant percentage of young, healthy people to balance out the older and sicker people expected to flood the new system.

The administration had hoped to enroll 500,000 people by the end of October, meaning it is, at best, one-fifth of the way toward its goal.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Democratic allies touted the numbers as a promising start and said enrollment would improve once the website was fixed.

Republicans mocked the numbers, with Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) saying more people attended the 2010 NBA All-Star game in Cowboys Stadium.

A total of 846,184 plan applications have been completed, representing 1,509,883 individuals and families, according to HHS. 

California, which is running its own exchange, accounted for roughly one-third of the program’s overall signups in the first month. Only 42 people enrolled in North Dakota, the state with the lowest number.

The administration released the figures after six weeks of pressure from the media and Republicans to reveal how the botched registration effort is proceeding.

The White House and top officials spent much of the past week trying to lower expectations for the report, arguing that most ObamaCare enrollments will come closer to deadlines for enrolling. 

HHS has set a deadline of Nov. 30 for the system to work well for most users, but there have been reports expecting the administration to miss the cutoff.

Sebelius acknowledged Wednesday that some repairs will continue after Nov. 30, but she pushed back at a suggestion that the site is not currently functioning.

“Every day people are coming through,” Sebelius said. “The experience today is significantly better than it was on Nov. 1 and it’s quite a bit better than it was in October.”

The data released on Wednesday suggest some state websites are working much better than the federal portal. Fourteen states, including New York and California, are operating their own exchanges.

They also suggested strong interest in Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people that has expanded in some states under the law. 

A total of 396,261 people have been determined eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program since Oct.1, officials said. 

The release of hard numbers is a major milestone in the contentious saga over the exchanges’ rollout.

Most users could not access the system for weeks amid error messages, slow page-load times and glitchy navigation. The extensive problems surprised the White House, and Obama responded with a “tech surge” of experts directed to perform triage on the broken system.

The White House is also dealing with fallout from Obama’s promise that people would be able to keep their health plans under ObamaCare. About 5 million people have had their policies canceled, and Obama last week apologized to them.

The president’s approval numbers have dropped in the last month as political momentum shifted to Republicans seeking changes to the law.

The House will vote Friday on a bill to allow people to keep their current healthcare plans. It is expected to gain support from red-state Democrats, who are increasingly frustrated with the White House over its handling of the law.

The GOP immediately blasted Wednesday’s report as a sign of major problems with ObamaCare as a whole.

“These numbers underscore the urgent need for President Obama to allow people to keep the plans they have and like,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. 

“The president says he is sorry but has taken no action to right his wrong … This report is a symbol of the failure of the president’s health care law. It is a rolling calamity that must be scrapped.”

The administration insists that it can make up any initial enrollment lag in the coming months.

Most sign-ups are expected to occur near deadlines in December and March, and officials repeatedly cited the experience of Massachusetts, where only a handful of people signed up for the state’s healthcare program in its first month.

Obama traveled to Boston recently to hammer home the comparison to the Bay State’s insurance system.

On Wednesday, he spoke about the Affordable Care Act at an event with tribal leaders but did not mention the enrollment numbers.

The federal health department said Wednesday it would eventually release data about the demographic makeup of ObamaCare enrollees.

Sebelius also said HHS would publish next month how many people had paid their first premiums in October.

This story was posted at 3:30 p.m. and updated at 6:37 p.m.