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Federal Healthcare Marketplace Website Tops One Million

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MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Thousands of Floridians who joined the last minute rush to sign up for health care under the federal government marketplace helped push the rehabilitated website past the 1 million mark.

Of the more than 1.1 million people now enrolled, nearly 1 million signed up in December, with the majority coming days before a pre-Christmas deadline for coverage to start in January. Compare that with a paltry 27,000 in October, the federal website’s first, error-prone month — or 137,000 in November.

The figures don’t represent a full accounting for the country. They don’t include December results from the 14 states running their own websites. Overall, states have been signing up more people than the federal government has. But most of that has come from high performers such as California, New York, Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut. Some states continue to struggle.

Still, the end-of-year spike suggests that the federal exchange serving 36 states is starting to pull its weight. The windfall comes at a critical moment for President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care law, which becomes “real” for many Americans on Jan. 1 as coverage through the exchanges and key patient protections kick in.

The administration’s concern now shifts to keeping the momentum going for sign-ups, and heading off problems that could arise when people who’ve already enrolled try to use their new insurance.

“They’ve got the front end of the system working really well,” said insurance industry consultant Robert Laszewski. “Now we can move on to the next question: Do people really want to buy this?”

The fledgling insurance exchanges — online markets for subsidized private coverage — are still likely to fall short of the administration’s own targets for 2013. That’s a concern because Obama needs millions of mostly younger, healthy Americans to sign up to keep costs low for everyone. Officials had projected more than 3.3 million overall would be enrolled through federal and state exchanges by the end of the year.

Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said fixes to the website, overhauled to address widespread technical problems, contributed to December’s figures. But things haven’t totally cleared up. Thousands of people wound up waiting on hold for telephone help on Christmas Eve for a multitude of reasons, including technical difficulties.

“We have been a little bit behind the curve,” acknowledged Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, whose state has the highest proportion of uninsured residents. Nonetheless, the strong December sign-ups send a message. “The Affordable Care Act is something that’s good for the country,” said Castro.

“Obamacare is a reality,” conceded one of the law’s opponents, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who as House oversight committee chairman has been investigating the rollout problems.

For consumers who successfully selected one of the new insurance plans by Dec. 24, coverage should start on New Year’s Day. That’s provided they pay their first month’s premium by the due date, extended until Jan. 10 in most cases.

But insurers have complained that another set of technical problems, largely hidden from consumers, has resulted in the government passing along inaccurate data on enrollees. With a flood of signups that must be processed in just days, it remains unclear whether last-minute enrollees will encounter a seamless experience if they try to use their new benefits come Jan. 1.

The White House says the error rate has been significantly reduced, but the political fallout from website woes could pale in comparison with the heat that Obama might take if Americans who signed up and paid their premiums arrive at the pharmacy or the emergency room and find there’s no record of their coverage.

Officials are also working to prevent gaps in coverage for at least 4.7 million Americans whose individual policies were canceled this fall because they fell short of the law’s requirements. The administration has said that even if those individuals don’t sign up for new plans, they won’t face the law’s tax penalty for remaining uninsured.

The new enrollment figures were released Sunday while Obama was vacationing in Hawaii.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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