U.S. Health Chief Calls Review After Obamacare Inflation

A “culture of increased transparency” is needed at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said, after Obamacare enrollment data were padded with dental plan customers in what she has called an error.

The mistake was “unacceptable,” Burwell said in a memo sent to her senior managers yesterday evening, obtained by Bloomberg News. As an first step, she told them to convene meetings with staff to solicit suggestions to increase “transparency, ownership and accountability” at the 77,000-employee agency she runs.

The number of people signed up for health insurance is a key measure of success for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The health department acknowledged Nov. 20 that it had double-counted about 393,000 people in dental plans when it announced that 7.3 million Americans were enrolled in August. Enrollment was revised downward as a result, to 6.9 million in August and 6.7 million in October.

“One of our most important obligations to the American people is to report information and data accurately,” Burwell said in her memo. “We are working quickly to understand what happened and to improve our processes in order to prevent similar mistakes from occurring again.”

Republicans have suggested the Obama administration intended to mislead the public by double-counting the dental plans, though so far there isn’t any evidence to support that claim. Adding dental plan customers to the overall figure kept Affordable Care Act enrollment above 7 million, a symbolic threshold the Obama administration adopted as a goal for the program in 2013.

Congressional Hearing

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, discovered the double-counting. The committee has scheduled a Dec. 9 hearing to interrogate the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Marilyn Tavenner. She first announced the 7.3 million figure at a September hearing of Issa’s panel.

“The numbers provided by CMS were deceptive and obscured the number of Americans running from exchange plans,” Issa said. The inclusion of dental enrollment partly masked attrition of about a million people from Affordable Care Act health plans since May.

It’s normal for individual health plan enrollment to fluctuate or fall, as people find jobs that offer health benefits, age into Medicare, the health program for the elderly, or obtain other alternative coverage.

Burwell said that once her managers report back to her on suggestions to improve transparency in the department, she’ll convene a “senior leadership meeting” to discuss them.

“As public servants, we must constantly work to earn the trust of those we serve,” she said in the memo. “That trust is built on our commitment to transparency, ownership, accountability and accuracy, and being forthcoming about where we can do better.”

The health department hasn’t announced any disciplinary actions in connection with the incident.

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