Early Obamacare data to signal how many still waiting to enroll

Reuters

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) - The Obama administration willrelease healthcare enrollment numbers for Obamacare's rockyOctober rollout this week that could be more important for whatthey fail to say, than for what they do.

President Barack Obama's Democratic administration, which isunder intense pressure from Republicans to release the data, hassignaled that the total will be low after weeks of technicalproblems with the federal website, HealthCare.gov.

But that will only underscore the huge number of peoplebelieved to be waiting for a chance to obtain benefits,according to policy experts and congressional aides.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or ACA,aims to provide health benefits to millions of uninsuredAmericans. It mandates that most Americans at least be enrolledfor health insurance by March 31 or pay a fine.

Analysts say the October number should offer an earlyindication of whether Obama's landmark health initiative isproving more popular with poor people who qualify for Medicaidor with working-class families eligible for subsidized privateinsurance through new online marketplaces that have been set upin all 50 states.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebeliustold the Senate Finance Committee last week that the early tallywould be "very low," and that the data would break out thenumbers for states and show how many enrolled in privateinsurance plans versus expanded Medicaid programs.

But administration officials have not said whether the datawill provide clues to other important questions, includingwhether young healthy adults, needed by insurers to offset olderpeople with higher health costs, are eager to obtain coverage.

A small sign-up number, particularly one dominated byMedicaid enrollment, would be seized upon by Republican criticsas evidence that the law is a failure that must be delayed oroverhauled before it leads to wider problems within the $2.9trillion U.S. healthcare system.

The administration is racing to make the federal enrollmentwebsite HealthCare.gov work smoothly by the end of November.

"There's going to be a huge crunch. It's a big choke point.The risk is people having lapses in coverage because the systemcan't handle the volume, which would be a huge political problemfor the administration," said James Capretta of the conservativeEthics & Public Policy Center.

Prior to the launch troubles, as many as 7 million Americanswere expected to sign up for private health insurance offeredthrough the online marketplaces for 2014. An additional 9million were expected to enroll in an expanded Medicaid programfor the poor by March 31, according to the Congressional BudgetOffice.

Before the Oct. 1 website launch became a debacle, internaladministration memos anticipated 494,620 enrollees in Octoberand 706,000 in November nationwide, according to congressionalinvestigators. Administration officials declined to confirm thenumbers, saying projections are subject to rapid change.

A failure to fix the website that leaves large numbers ofpeople uninsured could put tremendous pressure on theadministration to delay implementation, including the individualmandate that requires most Americans to have insurance in 2014or face a penalty.

Administration official have not said exactly when this weekthe data will be released.

Republican aides in the U.S. House of Representativesbelieve the Department of Health and Human Services and itsCenters for Medicare and Medicaid Services will try to avoidscrutiny by not providing detailed data.

"They could give us very granular data showing enrollment bystate, by plan level, how many enrollees had subsidies and atwhat level - all that stuff. But I think they're going to giveus something aggregated nationally," said one aide.

So far, the administration has only said that 750,000 peoplehave applied to determine their eligibility for Medicaid or fortax credits under the healthcare law.

A Reuters tally of 7 states that are running their ownexchanges and providing detailed information on enrollment showsmore than 35,000 Americans have picked a private insurance planso far. More than 145,000 have enrolled in Medicaid. (Additional reporting by Caroline Humer and Lewis Krauskopf inNew York; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Tim Dobbyn)

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