Health Care Registration Numbers Are Revealed

The Obama administration says just about 100,000 people managed to choose health plans through the federal and state health exchanges during their first month of the program. Critics say that shows the law is failing. But most analysts say the first month's numbers wouldn't have meant very much, even if the federal website had been working properly.

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The Obama administration has finally released the numbers a lot of people have been waiting for and Congress has been demanding. Just over 100,000 people signed up for private insurance through state and federal health exchanges last month. But only 27,000 of those managed to get through the process via the troubled federal Healthcare.gov website. Republicans immediately attacked the numbers as proof the entire law is a failure.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports most analysts say it's too early to draw much of a conclusion.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: In a conference call with reporters, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius tried to put the best face on what was clearly a disappointing report.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: As of this first period, more than 1.5 million Americans applied for coverage, submitting more than 846,000 applications for themselves and members of their families.

ROVNER: By first period, the administration is counting from October 1st through November 2nd. During that time, the majority who completed the process, nearly 400,000, were deemed eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. Just over 79,000 signed up for private insurance in one of 11 state-run exchanges that reported numbers to the federal government. Nearly half that total came from California alone. And a mere 26,794 chose a plan through the federal website, Healthcare.gov.

Sebelius says she's confident that number will grow now that the website's problems are being fixed, and as more people learn about their options.

SEBELIUS: As we continue this outreach effort, and as we make continuous improvements to Healthcare.gov, we've every reason to expect more people will enroll

ROVNER: But the law's opponents were quick to pounce on the even lower-than-expected totals. On the Senate floor, Wyoming Republican John Barrasso spoke for several of his colleagues.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: If this was a commercial website, the plug would have been pulled by now. They came, they saw, they didn't buy it. Low expectations met with even lower reality.

ROVNER: But others say that the numbers for October are indicative of, well, not much.

JONATHAN GRUBER: I think it doesn't mean anything at this point. I think it's just too early to say.

ROVNER: Jonathan Gruber is an economics professor at MIT. He helped design and implement the Massachusetts health law on which the federal law is based.

GRUBER: We've got a process where people, at this point, are buying insurance they can't even get until January, and where the individual mandate doesn't even apply till March. So I think we have to wait and see how many people sign up by January. And more relevantly, how many people sign up by March.

ROVNER: In Massachusetts, both Gruber and Secretary Sebelius pointed out, signup at the start of the program was anemic. And most people waited until near the end of the sign up period to enroll.

SEBELIUS: We know from experience that people tend to research and consider their options, talk things over with their families before making a purchase.

ROVNER: But Gruber says an even more important metric is what kind of mix of people sign up.

GRUBER: How many young and healthy are we getting compared to older and sicker.

ROVNER: In its report yesterday, the administration didn't break down the demographics of the people who managed to complete the process. But Gruber said in Massachusetts the young and healthy also tended to be the procrastinators.

GRUBER: In Massachusetts, we saw a huge rush of the young and healthy right before the individual mandate took effect.

ROVNER: Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Democrats seem less worried about number of people signing up than the number of people getting their individual policies cancelled by their insurance companies. On Friday, House Republicans are bringing up for vote a bill that would let insurance companies continue policies that don't meet the standards set by the new law. It's something the administration opposes.

But Democrats are looking to the administration for some alternative. At the White House briefing yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney promised one would be forthcoming.

JAY CARNEY: You can expect a decision from him and an announcement from him sooner rather than later, on options that we can take to address the problem.

ROVNER: White House officials are expected to head to Capitol Hill later today to try to calm some of the restless troops.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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