Obama boosts health law with select data

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The Obama administration is selectively releasing data and metrics on ObamaCare to bolster its case that the rollout is going better in the month of December.

Tidbits of information from federal health officials — especially figures that show improvements at HealthCare.gov — have become a key tool in the effort to “reboot” the law in the eyes of the public.

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But the limited nature of the releases has created conflict with the media and put the spotlight on outstanding areas of concern for the rollout, such as the enrollment site's back end.

It’s not unusual for politicians to put out numbers that bolster their case. Democrats, for example, have been infuriated with House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who they say has selectively dripped a series of redacted documents about the rollout.

Still, strategists cautioned that the administration’s approach could backfire as the public remains skeptical about the healthcare law. 

“Given the level of suspicion, if they’re not as candid as possible, they’re going to get burned,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The overall error rate for information being transferred from HealthCare.gov to insurance companies has emerged as a major point in the debate.  

Under pressure from journalists, officials finally said Friday that as many as one in four so-called 834 forms were flawed in October and November.

The current error rate is 10 percent, meaning tens of thousands of new policyholders could still encounter problems when they try to use their coverage in January. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and White House press secretary Jay Carney engaged in several tense exchanges leading up to Friday as reporters pressed to find out the extent of the errors.

Federal health officials had previously cited a related metric suggesting officials knew how often 834 problems were occurring, but simply chose not to say.

“Why not have the same transparency about tabulating that as you have with some of these other issues?” CBS White House correspondent Major Garrett asked Carney Thursday. 

The friction comes as the administration promotes a limited set of analytics related to HealthCare.gov.

Since late October, federal health officials have touted traffic to the site, error rates and page load times almost daily in an effort to illustrate positive changes.

Enrollment figures are only discussed monthly, and leaked sign-up numbers are not confirmed. Vital information for judging the growing risk pools, such as applicants' ages, goes undiscussed.

The administration appears to have largely chosen data over anecdotes as the most powerful way to communicate site improvements to the media.

The metrics released are difficult to independently verify, but provide easy headlines and talking points for anxious supporters of the Affordable Care Act, including congressional Democrats. 

The federal disclosures appear even thinner in comparison to information coming out of some state-run insurance exchanges, like California's.

Covered California (CC) last month provided a 16-page report detailing the metrics behind its October enrollment figures.

In a series of comprehensive charts and graphs, the report broke down enrollees by age, language and region, and sectioned out applicants based on their eligibility for federal subsidies or Medi-Cal.

CC is also releasing weekly reports with the number of unique visitors to the site, total call volume, average wait time and average handling time.

The exchange details how many people serviced were eligible to enroll, and whether they began the process through the website, an enrollment counselor, or an insurance agent.

CMS has not yet announced plans to release any sign-up data beyond the number of enrollments. The disclosure includes some details, like a state-by-state breakdown, but little in comparison to California.

Manley said federal health officials face a tricky balancing act in deciding what to release.

The administration can control the narrative by sitting on key metrics that don’t reflect positively on the roll-out.

However, the media’s thirst for data in the wake of the botched rollout has reporters openly clashing with healthcare officials over CMS's transparency, heightening negative stories.

“I understand the tough position [the administration is] in,” Manley said. “Things are moving very quickly, but I hope they release as much data as possible as quickly as possible. Transparency is a key aspect of getting the public to fully support the program.”

CMS has also taken heat for counting as enrolled people who have not yet paid their first premium, the final step in signing up for coverage. Critics say this choice inflates the numbers to the administration's benefit.

The White House believes it has an effective response to the criticism, arguing that those who have so far selected plans don’t owe their first payments until late December. 

CMS believes that including those who have selected a plan provides a more complete picture of how the enrollment process is going, considering the window of time between the data release and the payment deadline.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has pledged that her department would provide a breakdown between those who have paid and those who have selected a plan before the end of the year.