HHS predicts ObamaCare ‘surge’

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is expected to release data later this month showing a “surge” in enrollees in the federal and state healthcare exchanges for November.

The numbers are expected to surpass the paltry figures for October, when enrollments were hampered by an erratic HealthCare.gov website plagued by outages and error messages.

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“We’re in the process of scrubbing final data and expect to report November numbers in mid-December,” HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters told The Hill in an email Monday. “But we expect that enrollment will increase with the technical improvements we’ve made, enrollment taking place across our customer service channels, and the surge in enrollment that many states who are running their own Marketplaces have reported.”

Bloomberg reported on Monday that the HHS will say 100,000 people selected plans through the federal exchanges in November, a nearly four-fold increase over the almost 27,000 that signed up in the first month of its operation.

But even with the jump, the administration appears well behind its original goal of having 800,000 people signed up through the state and federal exchanges in the first two months.

“It’s important to remember we are just two months into a six-month open enrollment period that we expect will ramp up over time as we’ve seen in other implementation efforts, such as Massachusetts and Medicare Part D,” Peters said.

The administration claimed on Sunday to have met its self-imposed deadline for having the federal website running smoothly for most users. The hope now is that the site can handle the influx of consumers expected to flood the markets in the weeks before the Dec. 23 deadline for those seeking coverage by Jan. 1.

November’s federal enrollee data will likely be outpaced by far superior numbers coming from the 14 state-run exchanges. The state markets have largely avoided the problems facing the federally run exchanges, and have emerged as a bright spot for the administration during the chaotic first two months of the ObamaCare launch.

An astounding 75 percent of the 106,000 total enrollees from October were in the 12 states running their own markets. An additional two states, plus the District of Columbia, didn’t report statistics.

More than one-third of those came from California, where the push to enroll the uninsured has made the state a model of success that the feds and other states hope can be replicated. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that ObamaCare stores have popped up in shopping centers as a part of that effort.

Last month, Covered California said that nearly 50,000 people had picked out a private health plan under ObamaCare during the first 19 days of November, nearly doubling its October total of 31,000.

In addition, the exchange touted a high number of individuals who have filled out applications but not yet selected a healthcare plan. Covered California said it received more than 10,000 completed applications a day during one week in November, topping out with a high of 71,888.

But questions remain.

HealthCare.gov can presently handle about 50,000 users at one time, and that load is sure to be challenged ahead of Dec. 23, when a rush of last-minute shoppers are likely to test the site’s capacity.

In addition, the administration has been under pressure to provide more comprehensive enrollment data.

The HHS has been criticized for including in its numbers those who have made it through the enrollment process and selected a plan but have not yet made a premium payment.

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has defended the decision, saying those who have already selected plans scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1 don’t owe their first payments until Dec. 23.

She argued that the timing between November’s data release and the Dec. 23 deadline put the HHS in an odd position, and that the agency’s decision to combine the early data was an attempt to provide a complete picture of how the enrollment process was coming along.

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.

Perhaps the most critical data point that has yet to be released pertains to the demographic breakdown of enrollees.

The healthcare marketplaces will need young and healthy consumers to enroll to keep a balanced risk pool and stable premium prices for 2015 and beyond. December’s release isn’t likely to break down the enrollees by age or sex.

Many believe the early adopters will be older and higher-risk, as those without current coverage, possibly due to pre-existing conditions, rush to enroll. The administration has been adamant that it expects an influx of young and healthy consumers before the end of the six-month enrollment period, on March 31.