by Robert Callobridge
A frenzied scramble on the last day before the deadline overloaded healthcare exchange websites and switchboards as hundreds of thousands of people around the country pushed enrollment numbers higher ahead of the March 30 deadline. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that number of people signing up would be “significantly above six million.”
Yet even on the last day of sign-ups, software and website problems on Healthcare.gov, the federal healthcare exchange marketplace, gave stark reminders of the technology woes that defined the early months of the rollout. Those technology problems prevented Americans from enrolling for nearly two months and caused the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to revise enrollment estimates downward to 6 million enrollees.
The Administration is granting exceptions to those who were unable to sign up for coverage due to high volumes at call centers and web site glitches, and eight states that run their own exchanges are issuing extensions as well. In Oregon, a completely dysfunctional exchange caused a one-month extension. This means final numbers for enrollment won’t be available until after coverage begins on May 1.
Unofficially, senior aides in the White House privately predicted that total enrollments in the online health exchange would exceed 7 million, CBO’s original estimate widely viewed as a critical benchmark for the law.
But questions remain about the impact of these numbers, including how many of the enrollees have paid their premium, how many didn’t have insurance before purchasing, and the age composition of the insurance pools. All are key metrics in measuring success in meeting the goals of the laws.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose agency was charged with implementation of the law, told an Oklahoma news station that insurance industry estimates for the number of enrollees who have paid is high.
“The customers pay their companies,” she told News9 Now of Oklahoma City. “The private market tells us that for their initial customers, it’s somewhere between 80 and 85 – some say as high as 90 percent – have paid so far.”
A February report from McKinsey & Company using data from the first four months of enrollment found that 27% of enrollees were previously uninsured. CNNMoney reports that 25% of applicants to exchanges were between the ages of 18 and 34 for the same period. Insurers note that young people sign up more for private coverage directly from insurers, the numbers of which aren’t included in publicly released enrollment figures even though the risk pool includes both groups.
In the deeply troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, described by even its most ardent supporters as “unacceptable,” the news that Obamacare enrollments met initial estimates is seen as a much-needed success for the Obama administration and the healthcare law. White House officials and their allies are planning to counter the rollout’s narrative with success stories – and to get those who received coverage to turn out and vote in November for the midterm elections.
“The narrative around Obamacare is changing,” said Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action. Carson’s organization is the evolved form of President Obama’s 2012 campaign organization. Carson thinks the enrollment numbers will hurt Republican attacks against the law.
The Affordable Care Act passed Congress in 2010 against fierce Republican resistance. It also served as the impetus for the creation of the Tea Party and is often a rallying cry for conservative activists, who call the law an infringement of liberty and an economic disaster.
Republican critics of the law showed no signs of relenting their attacks. House Speaker John Boeher of Ohio announced that the Republican-led House will continue to vote on repealing the law, including an upcoming vote about the classification of full time work under the law.
“Millions of Americans are facing higher premiums, canceled plans, and the loss of doctors and hospitals they liked” said Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader. McConnell is facing a tough race against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan-Grimes in his home state of Kentucky, where the healthcare law is deeply unpopular.
Although Republicans are widely expected to perform favorably this fall, the midterm election is widely seen as a bellwether for both parties about the more contentious race in 2016 and will play an important role in the fundraising and recruiting effort for the presidential election.