State Obamacare markets attract tens of thousands of customers

Reuters

By Lewis Krauskopf and Deena Beasley

Oct 8 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of uninsured people havebegun to sign up for health coverage through online Obamacareprivate insurance marketplaces in California and New York,officials said on Tuesday, while problems still plagued thefederal online system.

California and New York are two of the biggest markets forsigning up millions of uninsured Americans under PresidentBarack Obama's healthcare law. State officials said the datathey provided on Tuesday was an early indicator of strong demandfor new insurance plans that will take effect in 2014.

The disclosures from New York and California come asRepublican opponents of Obama's healthcare reform press theadministration for details of how enrollment is progressing. Thefederal government has been working to fix both capacity andsoftware issues that have prevented access to the Healthcare.govwebsite since the new exchanges launched on Oct. 1.

"It started a little rockier than we'd like. It's bettertoday than it was yesterday and it will keep getting better,"U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saidin an interview with comedian Jon Stewart on cable TV's TheDaily Show.

The Covered California exchange said it approved more than16,000 applications for health insurance that would cover over28,000 state residents, despite early glitches since the websitelaunched. The number includes people deemed eligible for thestate's Medicaid program for the poor. Another 27,000applications are still being processed. The exchange did not sayhow many of those people had selected new health plans, butexpects to make that data available beginning in mid-November.

"We've started strong," said Covered California ExecutiveDirector Peter Lee. "The amount of interest and number ofapplications we've received in the first week underscores thedemand among Californians for quality, affordable healthcare."

New York reported that applications that would cover morethan 40,000 people had been completed, including determiningthose who would be eligible for Medicaid and those who couldthen choose their private health plans.

"What the 40,000 people represent to me is first that thereis vast interest in applying for coverage through our statemarketplace, and our system is processing applications quicklyand efficiently," Donna Frescatore, executive director of the NYState of Health exchange, said in an interview.

Data provided by other states has varied in terms of whetherthe numbers refer to completed enrollments or applicationsprocessed and whether they detail how many people have signed upfor Medicaid or private insurance. A Reuters tally of data fromeight additional states shows more than 25,000 processedapplications or enrollments, with at least three-quarters ofthem deemed eligible for Medicaid.

HHS WORKS ON FIXES

The Department of Health and Human Services saidHealthcare.gov has attracted nearly 9 million visitors since thestart of enrollment, but has not given any details on how manyapplications for insurance or enrollments have been processed.

Republican members of the House of Representatives Energyand Commerce Committee in an Oct. 8 letter to Sebelius requestedstate-by-state enrollment data for the federally-run exchangesby Oct. 18.

HHS says it will provide regular enrollment updatesbeginning in mid-November, after it has verified state figuresand cross-checked data for all 50 states with health insurancenumbers.

Obamacare advocates said they expect the federal exchangesite should show significant improvement later this week asinformation technology contractors add server capacity to thesystem to handle unexpectedly large volumes of online trafficand address software problems.

"I believe they are likely to get fixed in the next fewdays. This is a temporary phenomenon," said Ron Pollack of theadvocacy group Families USA, who says he is in touch withadministration officials about the rollout at least twice a day.

Meanwhile, nonprofit groups offering in-person assistance topotential beneficiaries said they were advising uninsured peopleto hold off for another week or begin enrollment with paperapplications that can take weeks to process and assuring peopleeager of coverage that there is still plenty of time to meet aDec. 15 enrollment deadline for coverage that begins Jan. 1.

"All of our phones are ringing off the hook, even wellbeyond regular business hours," said Dizzy Warren of MichiganConsumers for Healthcare.

Independent experts say the administration has untilNovember to iron out the glitches to Healthcare.gov, when abigger influx of potential customers is expected. The 14 statesrunning their own healthcare exchanges continue to have sporadictechnical problems, including verifying consumer identities andcalculating government subsidies.

Minnesota's MNSure exchange said its account creationprocess was disrupted by a fix applied to federal data systemsover the weekend, an issue it expects to be addressed later onTuesday.

The Cover Oregon exchange said it was now directingresidents to fill out paper applications for insurance ratherthan signing up online through assistors or insurance brokers,citing problems determining eligibility for subsidies.

"There are a lot of complex family situations we deal withand we want to be sure that for all these situations we areproperly determining eligibility," said spokeswoman Ariane Holm.

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