Obamacare Tops October Sign-Ups in First 2 December Days

More people signed up for Obamacare health plans in the first two days of December than in all of October after the U.S. government rehabilitated its error-prone insurance-exchange website.

About 29,000 people selected health plans through the federal exchange from Dec. 1 through Dec. 2, according to a person familiar with the data who asked not to be identified because the final numbers are being cross-checked. About 26,000 people in October bought health plans though the federal system.

The new numbers provide some hope to the administration that President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul can succeed after the botched Oct. 1 debut of the online insurance marketplaces stymied customers with outages, slow load times and garbled data. Obama yesterday began a three-week campaign to regain momentum for his signature initiative, which he said is seeing increasing participation.

“We certainly expect enrollment to increase given technical improvements we’ve made to the site,” Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in an e-mail without providing specific data. “We are two months into a sustained six-month long open enrollment period that we expect will ramp up over time.”

The government said Dec. 1 that after six weeks of repairs, it had met goals for making the federal website healthcare.gov, which serves residents in 36 states, fully functional for most users. The 14 states that operate their own exchanges are also reporting improvement.

Data for Insurers

With enrollment at the site growing, technicians at the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have increasingly turned their attention to flaws that have caused incomplete and garbled data to be transmitted to health insurers. Without correct information on people who sign up at the site, insurers can’t provide coverage, potentially jeopardizing access to care on Jan. 1.

Julie Bataille, a CMS spokeswoman, said today that she couldn’t quantify how many data transmissions -- called 834 transactions -- had been made to insurers, or what proportion contained errors. Later, CMS and two insurance trade groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, issued an unusual joint statement on the issue.

‘Back-End Issues’

“We are working together closely to resolve back-end issues between health plans and healthcare.gov,” the groups said in the statement. “This is a very focused effort that is being driven by a team of experts from CMS, key outside contractors working closely with health plan representatives and overseen by CMS’s general contractor, Optum/QSSI. We will report on our progress.”

State health exchanges, including California, Washington and Kentucky, also have reported rising interest in enrollment as a Dec. 23 deadline approaches to sign up for coverage that will be effective on Jan. 1.

Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California has said the state has seen “incredible momentum” since the end of October.

The online exchanges, where people can shop for private health insurance with the help of government subsidies, are at the core of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The law requires most Americans to have health insurance by March 31 or pay a fine of as much as 1 percent of income.

Declining Support

Obama has suffered declining approval ratings as problems with the exchange prevented many people from enrolling, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans received letters from their insurers notifying them their current coverage would be canceled at the end of the year.

“I’ve acknowledged more than once that we didn’t roll out parts of this law as well as we should have, but the law’s already working in major ways that benefit millions of Americans right now,” Obama said today in a speech about the economy in Washington. “This law is going to work. And for the sake of our economic security, it needs to work.”

Republican leaders have dismissed the idea that Obama will be able to turn public opinion in favor of the law. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they opposed the law in a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken Nov. 14-17, and the country was split 49 percent to 49 percent on whether the program could even be salvaged because of its flawed start.

“The more America learns of this plan, the more they’re opposed to it,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the chief Republican vote-counter in the U.S. House, told reporters yesterday.

Peters of the health agency said Obamacare enrollment would accelerate along similar patterns surrounding the initial sign-up periods for the Medicare Part D prescription drug plans in late 2005 and Massachusetts’s health-care law in 2006.

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