Only 26,000 people managed to buy health insurance on HealthCare.gov in October, the first month the website was open, the Health and Human Services Department said Wednesday.
But more than 106,000 have made it through the process on both the state and federal websites, and most just have a few more steps to make the final purchase, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says. And as many as half a million look like they will have either private health insurance or new Medicaid coverage in 2014, HHS says in its first report on enrollment at HealthCare.gov.
Nearly 27 million people have visited the federal and state websites — a number that suggests there's tremendous interest in getting health insurance. More than 47 million U.S. adults now go without health insurance, more than 15 percent of the population.
The federal government has been playing down expectations for how many people will have signed up so far, but the long-awaited figures released Wednesday show that 26,794 people bought health insurance on the federal website, covering 36 states. Another 79,391 bought policies on state-run websites.
"Enrollment includes those who have selected a plan who either have or have not yet paid the first month’s premium," HHS said.
People have to pay their insurers separately. "By December 15th we will begin to tell you how many people have paid for the first month of coverage," Sebelius told reporters on a conference call. "Buying insurance is very different from buying a toaster."
Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act pounced on the low enrollment figures. "This report is a symbol of the failure of the president’s health care law,” said House Speaker John Boehner.
Liz Carlson, left, a self-employed student, gets help from navigator Eireann Aspell at a health care enrollment fair. HHS says just 26,000 people managed to sign up in October on the federal site.
The White House had hoped half a million people would have signed up in the first month the site was active. The Congressional Budget Office had projected that 7 million people would sign up for private health insurance on the exchange and that another 9 million would get Medicaid coverage.
The new numbers indicate that the 500,000 projection may not be completely off. “Additionally, 396,261 Americans have been assessed or determined eligible for Medicaid or CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program)," HHS said in a statement.
Caroline Pearson of Avalere Health, an independent health consulting firm, said she was't surprised. "The numbers are bad. We expected them to be bad," she said. She said they show not only that the website didn't work well, but that people tend to procrastinate. "There were a lot of people who were not going to sign up int he first month, anyway," she said.
“I am surprised that many persevered to the end of the process,” said Timothy Jost, a health care expert at Washington and Lee University and a supporter of the Obama administration’s health reforms.
"A disaster of this scope I don't think anybody expected," Jost added. "What the numbers tell us is that the technology is not working. Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of interest."
HealthCare.gov, the centerpiece of health reform efforts under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, fell apart as soon as it went live on Oct. 1. It was supposed to be a seamless, online system to allow people to comparison shop for health insurance policies, checking right away to see if they qualify for a generous federal government subsidy to buy a plan.
Several different approved government contractors put together parts of the system and when it went online, the parts didn’t work together. The result: Hardly anyone managed to sign up, critics said “I told you so” and Congress has launched several investigations into what went wrong.
The administration has agreed over and over that the site is unacceptably flawed. Asked whether it would be working as promised on Nov. 30, White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said not to expect a flawless performance. "The goal that has been laid out is not for the site to be perfect by Nov. 30," Park told a House Oversight Committee hearing earlier on Wednesday. It should, however, work smoothly for the "vast majority" of users.
But it still wasn’t working for everyone.
Claudia Schulz, 33, of Phoenix, is among those who’ve tried to enroll on the federal health exchange and can’t.
She and her husband, Joseph, 37, have gotten through the first two steps of the process on the federally run site in Arizona, but when they go to push the button to enroll, nothing but a blank page comes up, she said.
Schulz tried again on Wednesday morning because she heard that the enrollment numbers might be announced. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s fixed,’” she said. “But it’s not.”
The couple quit their jobs to start a real estate firm this summer, in part because they believed they could obtain insurance for themselves and their three children through Obamacare. They still think they will, says Schulz, who is depending on COBRA benefits to extend their previous insurance.
“I’ll just check back in a couple of weeks,” she said.
Sebelius urged people to keep trying. "After November 30th we will continue to make improvements in the site but it is very much up and running," she said. "We clearly, here on November 13th, are not where we want to be on the 30th of November. I would urge you to try again."
JoNel Aleccia contributed to this story
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First published November 13 2013, 12:31 PM