Show Us the Obamacare Exchange Numbers

The government should reveal the most important piece of information about Obamacare so far: How many people are actually signing up?

It's a little hard to get worked up over the technical glitches plaguing Obamacare's federal-exchange websites. We should still ask, as my colleague Megan McArdle did, why the Department of Health and Human Services wasn't ready to handle the traffic it's getting, and whether it should have been. But we're only three days in, and the government is probably doing everything it can to fix those glitches.

So criticizing President Barack Obama's administration over the bugs in the system seems premature, nitpicky and unrealistic. What's not premature or nitpicky is expecting the government to reveal the most important piece of information about Obamacare so far: How many people are actually signing up?

The administration has acknowledged the importance of that question, by touting the number of people who went to on Oct. 1 -- 4.7 million unique visitors, which is an impressive number. But it's also a disingenuous number, as it implies significant demand for Obamacare without actually stating how many people have applied.

That's the number that matters, and it's a number the administration won't reveal. Is it possible the glitches have been so great that the government doesn't know how many people have signed up? Perhaps -- but if that's the case, then those glitches are more serious than the government is letting on. The Obama White House wants more than anyone to know how many people are buying exchange coverage, and it's hard to believe it doesn't yet have that information.

A more likely explanation is that the number of people applying for insurance is so low that releasing it would undercut the administration's message about the great demand for, and by extension the necessity of, maintaining Obamacare.

From the outside, that's not a terribly persuasive reason to play dumb. Sure, an exceedingly small number of applications -- in the low thousands, say -- would spark early criticism of the law's long-term prospects. But Democrats never promised a surge of early applicants, so whether the number of people signed up so far is 10,000 or a million, the administration has grounds to claim a win. After all, the enrollment period lasts six months because it will take people time to adjust to a new benefit and a new system for getting that benefit.

Maybe it seems reasonable from the government's perspective to avoid taking chances. The Obama administration, and in particular HHS, has been so thoroughly buffeted by criticism over this law that it's adopted a mindset of sharing only the information that it must -- and even then, delaying that information as long as possible. If that's the explanation, it's time for the agency to start emerging from its bunker mentality.

HHS may decide to release Obamacare enrollment numbers using the same type of monthly reports it used to share enrollment in the Medicare prescription-drug program. If that's the case, who knows when the first report will come out. The longer the agency waits, the harder it is for the rest of us to judge the success of the exchanges, the significance of the glitches or the administration's efforts to fix them.

Delaying the release of application figures also delays the answer to one of the most interesting questions at this early stage in Obamacare: Did the decision by most Republican-led states to default to a federally run exchange have any effect of the number of people signing up? Or did it amount to just a publicity stunt, burdening the federal government while giving the appearance of obstructing Obamacare? It's hard to answer that if we can't compare state-by-state enrollment numbers.

Until the administration releases the number of people who are actually applying for health coverage under Obamacare, we won't be able to judge how the law is doing in its early days. Unlike website glitches, that's something the White House can fix right away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.