Is Obamacare's First Enrollee Bogus?
It seems as if every policy reporter in the nation spent the last four days trying to log in and browse policies on Healthcare.gov, yet was stymied by glitches. Many of us have also been on the lookout for people who had actually bought insurance policies under Obamacare. Over the first day, reports trickled in of various successes -- most of them in Kentucky, funnily enough. (As I tweeted at the time, who had Kentucky in the office pool for "most successful exchange rollout"? Yeah, me neither.)
But no one could find anyone who had enrolled in one of the 36 exchanges being run by the Federal government, and people were beginning to doubt that anyone had, despite the White House's assurances. Then finally, finally, Enroll America, a nonprofit ally of the White House run by a former White House communications staffer, came up with someone who had managed to get past all the glitches: Chad Henderson, a student and part-time day-care worker in Georgia who managed to enroll himself and his father in "bronze" plans (the tier with the lowest premium cost and highest cost-sharing). The Federal exchange websites might not be working well, but here at least was proof that they were working at all. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and @Obamacare both retweeted Henderson about getting enrolled:
The next morning, Enroll America offered his name to the press. Henderson was interviewed by Politico, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, among others. Details of his story emerged: He had waited until 3 am on Oct. 1 to log in. "Once I created an account, there were hardly any glitches at all after that," he told the Huffington Post, putting him in rare company. Indeed, I tried again last night, and managed to get as far as inputting personal information before it froze up and refused to go any further.
Once in, Henderson said, he purchased two policies -- one for himself, and one for his father. He could have gone on his father's insurance, at a heavily subsidized rate, because his father makes $24,000 a year selling shave ice. But "he's old school, so he wants me to take responsibility," the younger Henderson told HuffPo. Henderson said he purchased a $175 bronze plan for himself. Since he makes only $7,000 a year, that's a big sacrifice. If Georgia had passed the Medicaid expansion, he could have gone on Medicaid for free, but Georgia, like most Republican states, declined. Ironically, his father, who has a much higher income, is eligible for the tax subsidies. Chad said his dad would be paying $250 a month.
But there was some weirdness about the story. In the run-up, many reports said that the exchanges were going live at 8 a.m. on Tuesday -- how was it that the only person anyone could find who had bought insurance managed to get in five hours early? Not impossible -- the servers could have been brought up early, or the reports could have been wrong -- but lots of people had been trying to log in starting at midnight, and no one else had gotten through. Yet Henderson had apparently created not one but two accounts. And why, if he had gotten insurance at 3 a.m., did he wait more than half a day to tweet about it?
This morning, Reason magazine reporter Peter Suderman -- aka the Official Blog Spouse -- spoke with Bill Henderson, Chad's father.
In a phone interview conducted this morning, Chad's father Bill contradicted major details of Chad's story. I reached Bill Henderson by following a series of links at Chad's Facebook page, through which I was able to speak directly to the father.
Bill Henderson told me that both he and his son were
interested in getting coverage, but that he had not enrolled in any plan yet, and to his knowledge, neither had his son. He also said that when they do enroll, getting the most coverage for the least money would be the goal, and that he expects that he and his son will get coverage under the same plan.
The local Blue Cross website says that the cheapest bronze plan available in Chad Henderson's county costs more than $225 without subsidies, even for a 21-year old. Meanwhile, the price quoted for his father is too high -- with subsidies, Obamacare's subsidy formulas say, his policy should cost no more than 6.61 percent of his income, or about $130 a month. A subsidy calculator shows that he could add Chad to that policy for at most another $90 a month.
What happened? It seems likely that the Obama administration grew aware of the problems with his story sometime after the Sebelius tweet. Chad Henderson's Facebook page at one time said that he was going to be on a press call with the administration (that post seems to have been deleted), but as far as I can tell, no such call ever took place. And Politico reports that "he was originally going to be part of an afternoon press conference with Enroll America, but instead two other people who got covered through the exchanges -- a college student from Florida and a small business owner in Kentucky -- were featured."
If it's true that Chad Henderson hasn't yet enrolled, you can see why the White House wouldn't want to expose someone who may have let his enthusiasm for Obamacare bubble over a little too exuberantly. But this also raises some questions, such as whether by Tuesday afternoon federal officials could even figure out if there had been two successful registrations in Walker County, Georgia (population 68,000) early that morning? Moreover, if they were able to figure out that Chad and his father hadn't registered, why can't they tell us how many people have?
It no longer looks likely that these numbers are zero: Insurers are reporting that they are getting at least a thin trickle of applications from the Federal exchanges. But the speed with which Chad's story spread tells you just how troubled this launch was, and how few people have so far succeeded in buying insurance.
UPDATE, 2:53 p.m.: The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff has had an interesting chatwith Chad Henderson, and the First Spouse's suspicions proved justified:
I spoke with Chad over the phone about this situation. He told me that he has indeed not purchased coverage but doesn't believe he was lying. He said he told reporters that he completed an application for coverage and knows what plan he would like to purchase, but has not, as of yet, enrolled in that insurance plan.
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