Obamacare enrollment at 106,000, far less than predicted

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WASHINGTON -- Slightly more than 106,000 Americans signed up for health plans in the first month of new state and federal insurance marketplaces, the Obama administration reported Wednesday.

The figure, far lower than the administration predicted, points to the steep challenge ahead as the White House tries to overcome public and congressional frustration with the program's problem-plagued rollout.

The tally showed that just a quarter of the enrollments were in the federally run marketplace, while the rest were in the state exchanges.

Just 2,200 Pennsylvanians have submitted an application and selected a plan, according to the Department of Health and Human Services report.

The online insurance marketplace is accessible to Pennsylvanians through the federally run HealthCare.gov website, and people with low-to-moderate income are eligible for federal tax credits to subsidize their health insurance cost. Besides people who picked a plan, the department says nearly 32,000 Pennsylvanians submitted applications for coverage for more than 57,000 people, including spouses and children.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius described the numbers in upbeat terms. "At the end of the day, the promise of quality affordable coverage is increasingly becoming a reality for more and more Americans," she said.

The enrollment picture emerged as the White House tried to quell growing upset in Congress, including among many Democrats, about a related issue: complaints from people whose individual policies are being canceled because theirs do not comply with new coverage rules.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that "sooner rather than later" President Barack Obama will announce a strategy to deal with such cancellations. In the meantime, lawmakers from both parties are gathering support for legislation that would make it easier for people to be able to keep their policies if they want to.

The enrollment tally is the first official indication of the desire and ability of uninsured Americans to get coverage under the 2010 law. Slightly fewer than 27,000 enrollments, or one-fourth of the total, occurred in the 36 states that rely on the troubled federal website. The rest were in 11 of the 14 states that have created their own marketplaces, which are generally working better than the federal one. A few states are not yet reporting.

The figures, which cover Oct. 1 to Nov. 2, are significantly lower than the administration's only known forecast, which suggested that nearly half a million people would sign up for private health plans during the first month of the initial six-month enrollment period for the exchanges. The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that 7 million people will buy coverage through the exchanges by spring.

The health plans available through the federal and state marketplaces are a central feature of the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama's signature domestic accomplishment -- one that has become a source of embarrassment because of the marred launch of HealthCare.gov. The president's friends and foes alike had eagerly awaited the first enrollment "snapshot," as HHS officials termed it.

Republicans used the figures as fresh ammunition to disparage the law. Calling the numbers "abysmal," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said they are "another early warning sign that this legislation ... ultimately cannot be fixed."

Democrats lavished praise. "Even with the difficulties of the website, we have seen tremendous demand for what the Affordable Care Act has to offer," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif.

The administration report counted people as having enrolled in a health plan if they selected one, even if they have not begun to pay for it. The marketplaces are intended mainly for those who cannot get insurance through a job.

Nationwide, the figures show that many more people began to shop for a health plan than have signed up so far -- especially in states using the federal marketplace. Federal health officials told reporters that they could not tell how many of those people stopped partway through, and how many were unable to finish because of HealthCare.gov's problems.

The numbers came out as the politics surrounding the health care law became increasingly heated. On Capitol Hill, House Democrats from across the ideological spectrum criticized the administration's handling of the issue at a closed-door meeting Wednesday attended by David Simas, the White House deputy senior adviser for communications and strategy, and other administration aides.

Ms. Pelosi said the more than 200 Democrats in her caucus have grown restless and are firing off their ideas to administration officials about what to do next. "We've all been making suggestions. We know what the possibilities are, but I don't know what they will choose. It's a long list; how many members do I have?" she told reporters.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is scheduled to meet privately today with Senate Democrats to discuss the law's implementation.

Democratic irritation with the White House is mounting as the House prepares to vote Friday on a bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., that would permit insurers to continue to sell health plans after this year, even if they don't meet new federal standards. Democratic leadership aides predicted that at least some Democrats will support the measure.


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