By Elise Viebeck - 11/11/13 07:56 PM EST
A new flurry of enrollment estimates for ObamaCare suggests the administration will have a lackluster figure to announce when it releases its official early enrollment count later this week.
Fewer than 50,000 people have successfully purchased private health plans on marketplaces linked to HealthCare.gov, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.
Both numbers would be disappointing for the administration, which hoped to sign up at least 500,000 people in October, according to internal memos cited by congressional Republicans.
A report in The Washington Post on Monday said the administration will count individuals who have selected a healthcare plan but not yet sent in their first payment when releasing its enrollment count. That decision should boost what are still expected to be a paltry number of early enrollees using Obama-Care to choose insurance plans.
Other state-specific figures emerging on Monday included reports that Oregon, one of 14 states that opted to run their own enrollment systems, has not seen a single person enroll in its exchange.
Federal health officials, who had previously worked to lower expectations, refused to confirm the numbers and blamed any possible lag on HealthCare
.gov, the troubled enrollment website.
“We have always anticipated that initial enrollment numbers would be low and increase over time … and, as we have said, the problems with the website will cause the numbers to be lower than initially anticipated,” Health and Human Services (HHS) Department spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a statement.
The reports are the latest bad news for ObamaCare enrollment.
The White House is seeking to tamp down negative reports about the law as federal health officials rush to fix the online portal. That effort has run into its own problems as HHS uncovers new technical errors midstream.
The administration insists it is making serious progress to shore up HealthCare
.gov, and officials say the site’s problems would not impede most enrollments, starting on Dec. 1.
But this assumes the “punch list” of repairs doesn’t grow longer over the next several weeks, experts said.
If the fixes are too numerous to complete in time, the administration might need a Plan B to ensure millions are able to sign up.
“If you don’t have a backup system, it’s a problem,” said Linda Blumberg, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “A workaround … would help tremendously.”
Thoughts of an alternative enrollment system come less than three weeks before the administration’s self-imposed deadline for fixing the website.
Shoring up HealthCare.gov by Nov. 30 is seen as crucial to guarantee the wave of enrollees expected in the first two weeks of December, when people must sign up for plans if they want coverage on Jan. 1.
Enrollment in Medicare Part D and under the Massachusetts healthcare reform law shows that people tend to sign up for health insurance close to deadlines.
Administration officials and their supporters frequently cite these precedents to argue that the enrollment effort will right itself over the next five months.
An estimated 7 million people were projected to acquire private health plans through the new marketplaces by the end of March.
This number must include millions of healthy, younger people in order to guarantee stable premium prices for next year.
It remains to be seen if the administration can accomplish this goal amid problems with the enrollment system.
“The website has to be working in order to get those [desired] numbers,” said Gary Claxton, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“If you can’t enroll, a lot of people through that system, and there isn’t a strong means for direct enrollment [through insurance companies], you’re not going to get those numbers.”
In the meantime, Monday’s reports underscore the challenge facing the administration, both this week and before the sign-up period closes.
The political firestorm over people losing their current health insurance will rear its head again this week as the House returns from recess to vote on a “keep your plan” bill designed to embarrass President Obama by highlighting his promise that people would be able to keep their existing plans under ObamaCare.
Obama last week apologized for the claim.