Obamacare has always been about numbers: $394 million to create a site to help more than 40 million uninsured Americans sign up for healthcare. Seven million people need to enroll, and 2.7 million of them need to be young and healthy. Those are the numbers that have been bouncing around for months, but we don't have the one number we really want: how many people have actually enrolled in health insurance through the federal exchange? Regardless of the website's flaws, we can't judge the success of the program until we know if those numbers are being met.
There are a couple of theories on why the Obama administration hasn't released their numbers, while the state-run exchanges have. The most obvious one is the numbers just aren't that good and the administration is trying to save face until the numbers improve. "The whole thing needed a real manager with experience," one former White House official told The New Yorker, a sentiment echoed by several others. The federal website is tough to get through, and even the "completed" applications insurers are getting are missing key information. Insurers are also reporting that they get multiple transactions for the same person at times. Jane Doe signs up, then she cancels, then she signs up again, then she drops out, and so on.
That leads to a slightly better reason for the silence — they need time to count how many real sign-ups they have. According to CNN, an official from the Department of Health and Human Services said "enrollment numbers will likely be released in mid-November, giving officials time to verify their accuracy."
A CNN report on Monday touched on the way White House Officials have answered questions on enrollment numbers. Both Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health, White House press secretary Jay Carney, and President Obama have said throughout the month that they can't give the numbers because they don't know. We also don't know, but have a feeling any of those three would have some luck finding out with a quick email. Later in the month Carney said government would give out monthly updates.
Until then we have to deal with estimates from anonymous sources and industry experts with no actual connection to healthcare.gov. Based on anonymous sources from Health and Human Services, the Daily Mail reported that 51,000 individuals completed applications to enroll in health insurance through healthcare.gov during the law's first week. Millward Brown Digital, which tracks the online activity of one percent of Americans, says that number is closer to 36,000. Robert Laszewski of Health Policy and Strategy Associates has said that “not more than about 5,000 individuals and families signed up for health insurance.”
Or, we can look back that the administration's predictions. According to a Health and Human Services memo obtained by the Associated Press, just under 500,000 people were expected to enroll in Obamacare by October 31.
And while we can maybe piece together an idea of how things are going from estimates, we need to use the correct terms to get a sense of what benchmark we're referring to. "Completed applications" aren't the same as "officially enrolled" individuals who've been verified and paid their first month's premium.
As ProPublica noted this week, the state-run exchanges have provided very detailed information with their information, as seen in the chart for Washington's exchange above, and even included statistics on wait times. At the end of the first week of this month 9,452 individuals had successfully enrolled in health insurance in Washington state. However, only 916 of those applications were for private insurance — the rest were for Medicaid. And a user is only considered enrolled if they've paid their first month's premium. There are 10,497 applications that haven't been paid for, possibly because payment isn't due until December 23 in Washington.
CNN found that 20,994 people had enrolled in and paid for Obamacare in the 14 state-run exchanges and the District of Columbia, while another 96,980 who are signed up, but still need to pay. Whenever the government releases enrollment numbers for the federal exchange hopefully they'll follow the states' lead on this. Until then we'll only be able to judge the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act on the performance of healthcare.gov.
(Screenshot via Washington Health Benefit Exchange.)