New enrollment data for a five-month period from October 1 through
March 1 came out as the administration threw its public relations
campaign into overdrive, with President Barack Obama appearing for
an interview on the comedy website, "Funny or Die," in a direct
appeal to the site's audience of young adults.
Healthy enrollees aged 18 to 34 are vital to the success of new
online health insurance marketplaces set up in all 50 states under
the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The administration
is targeting younger Americans because they are cheaper to insure
and can compensate for older, sicker policyholders who have been
able to obtain affordable insurance due to the law.
Tuesday's data showed the level of young adult participation stuck
at 25 percent of total enrollment for the second month in a row.
However, officials predicted that enrollment would skyrocket over
the next 20 days, pushing totals significantly higher with a rush of
"We do believe millions more Americans will come in and enroll in
coverage before the March 31 deadline," said Julie Bataille, a
spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the
government's lead Obamacare agency.
Bataille declined to issue a specific forecast. But her prediction
suggests administration officials are confident that Obamacare
enrollment will meet or exceed the nonpartisan Congressional Budget
Office's (CBO) revised estimate of 6 million private insurance
CBO initially forecast 7 million marketplace enrollees but scaled
back that estimate after last year's botched rollout, in which the
federal website HealthCare.gov was paralyzed by technical problems.
Those problems continue to hobble enrollment efforts for state-run
marketplaces in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and Oregon.
Enrollment advanced by 940,000 people in February, amid independent
signs of a sustained decline in the United States' huge uninsured
population of nearly 50 million people. A recent Gallup survey
showed the percentage of Americans without health coverage at 15.9
percent in early 2014, down from an all-time high of 18 percent last
summer, with declines in every major demographic group below age 65.
Eighty-three percent of Obamacare enrollees qualify for federal
subsidies that help low-income people pay for health coverage, the
"What we're finding is that as more Americans learn just how
affordable marketplace insurance can be, more are signing up to get
covered," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
told reporters in a teleconference.
But there were key gaps in the government data regarding who was
Officials did not have enough data to say how many enrollees were
previously uninsured, versus those moving into Obamacare coverage
from other plans, including policies canceled last year. A recent
survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co found that 27 percent of
February enrollees were previously uninsured.
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The administration was also unable to say how many people who have
signed up for coverage have actually enrolled by paying their first
month's premium. The McKinsey study showed that more than
three-quarters of February enrollees had made a premium payment.
Republicans zeroed in on the lack of detail to call on Obama to
delay the law's tax penalty for those who fail to enroll in coverage
by March 31.
"The administration won't tell us how many people have actually paid
for a plan or how many were previously uninsured," said Brendan
Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "But what we do know
is that young adults — those who the White House repeatedly said are
critical — are deciding the healthcare law is a bad deal."
Anticipating an enrollment surge, Officials said HealthCare.gov
continues to operate smoothly with low error rates and fast
page-loading speeds following last year's emergency effort to
salvage the website.
But the problems faced by state-run exchanges that continue to be
troubled were obvious in the latest enrollment data.
Connecticut, a leading Obamacare success story, has enrolled more
than 57,000 people in private insurance since October 1.
But two larger states, Massachusetts and Maryland, have signed up
only about 13,000 and 38,000 respectively because of marketplace
problems. Oregon has also enrolled only 38,000, while Hawaii,
Obama's home state, has signed up just 4,661.
The watchdog Government Accountability Office is probing states with
problem launches to determine how hundreds of millions of dollars on
Obamacare grants were spent.
(Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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