Disappointing Numbers Keep Sebelius on the Hook

The Fiscal Times

These have been grim times for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, chief overseer of the crippled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, as she has absorbed a pummeling from practically all quarters.

Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” humiliated her for being computer illiterate. She was forced to grovel and apologize to Republicans and Democrats alike during two testy hearings last week before House and Senate committees. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from her own home state of Kansas and a longtime family friend, called on Sebelius to resign for “gross incompetence” in the wake of flawed exchanges and enrollment technology.

Related: The President’s Non-Apology Apology on Obamacare

Even President Obama had little good to say about her during an interview with NBC News last week in which he, too, had to apologize about Obamacare.

Asked by Chuck Todd if he still had “full confidence” in Sebelius in the aftermath of the hobbled launch of HealthCare.com, Obama said, in part, “I think she’d be the first to admit that, if we had to do it all over again, there would have been a whole lot more questions than were asked in terms of how this thing is working.”

There seemed a trace of relief -- or was it resignation? -- in the former Kansas governor’s voice on Wednesday afternoon as she announced the first batch of online Obamacare enrollment figures for October. The news was decidedly mixed. 

About 1.5 million individuals applied, which was good. But only 106,185 actually made it through the entire process –- and just 26,794 of those used the technically challenged federal website operating in 36 states.

That was lower than what industry critics were predicting and well below the 50,000 enrollment figure for the federal website reported earlier this week by The Wall Street Journal.

“The numbers tell two very clear stories,” Sebelius told reporters on a conference call. “First, in every part of our country, Americans are very interested in the affordable health coverage that is being offered through the marketplace and through Medicaid. And even with the [technical] issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling – over the phone, on paper, in person and online, at both HealthCare.gov and through state websites.

“Second,” she added, “we can reasonably expect that these numbers will grow substantially over the next five months, as they did in Massachusetts [with the launch of that state’s health care insurance reform law in 2006], which enrolled only 0.3 percent or 123 people in its first month. We know from experience in the Bay State that people tend to research and consider their options … This data represents only a month into a sustained six-month enrollment and outreach effort.

Related: No Hope Left for Obamacare’s Website, Techies Say

“And we’re confident that as more people learn about their new options,” she said, “more people will find a plan that meets their needs and their budget, and more will enroll in coverage.”

Yet the prospects of the administration fixing the website’s legion of software and hardware problems within the next two weeks, as promised, are slim, according to industry experts and even some in the government. In addition, the overall signups fell far short of the 500,000 enrollments the administration originally was counting on for the month of October.

The federal website generated just a quarter of the 106,000 total enrollments. The remaining 79,000 came through the 15 marketplaces operated by states and the District of Columbia – with the largest enrollments reported by California (34,364), New York (16,404) and Washington State (7,091). Still, Sebelius is undeterred.

“We expect these numbers to rise,” she said.

Related: Bill Clinton Just Undercut Obama's Health Plan

When asked how confident she was that the website would be fully fixed by month’s end, Sebelius emphasized that Americans should try to use it even if it’s imperfect.

“Every day people are getting enrolled. The experience today on Nov. 13 is significantly better than it was on Nov. 1, and it’s quite a bit better than it was in October,” she said. “The website is very much operational and very much open for business."

But can the site really be running smoothly “for the vast majority of users” by Dec. 1? Sebelius noted that when Jeffrey Zients, the White House official overseeing online enrollment, first made that pledge, “He recognized the fact that first of all, there will always be outlier cases. What we want is an experience for the vast majority of users that is easy to use, and gets them from start to finish without locking them out or timing them out.”

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