TOPICS > Politics

Initial ACA enrollment numbers come up short of expectations

November 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Technology chiefs in charge of HealthCare.gov were grilled by lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the problematic rollout of the website. Kwame Holman reports on their testimony, while Judy Woodruff talks to Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News about the lower-than-expected enrollment numbers for the insurances exchanges.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The rollout of the health care law took several hits today, most significantly, those low enrollment numbers announced by the administration. So far, slightly more than 106,000 have enrolled in the new federal and state exchanges.

A reason, of course, has been the troubled launch of the federal Web site, where at one point people could not even log on to HealthCare.gov. We will take a closer look at those figures in a minute.

Republicans on Capitol Hill pressed the Obama administration today to explain what caused the technical problems.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, D-Calif.: This wasn’t a small mistake. This wasn’t a scaling mistake. This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launchpad.

KWAME HOLMAN: And according to Republican Darrell Issa, chairing today’s hearing, the blame goes straight to mission control: the White House.

Related Video

Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings fired back.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-Md.: Nobody in this room, nobody in this country believes that Republicans want to fix the Web site. For the past three years, the number one priority of congressional Republicans has been to bring down this law.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, Republicans argued the Web site’s woes are partially political. They suggested the reason people had to create accounts before they could shop for coverage was the administration feared sticker shock when they saw the cost.

A top technology officer at Medicare, Henry Chao, insisted the White House had no role in that decision.

HENRY CHAO, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: Absolutely not. It was a decision made on the results of testing. It would be pretty egregious — and I understand that a lot of folks are wondering why the Web site is functioning the way it is, but to consciously know that it failed testing and to then put into production for people to use is not what we do.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the White House chief technology officer, Todd Park, who appeared under subpoena, insisted they’re slowly getting the problems fixed.

TODD PARK, White House Chief Technology Officer: The Web site is getting better each week, as we work to improve its performance, its stability, and its functionality. As a result, more and more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans.

KWAME HOLMAN: Park said the site now processes 1,700 new accounts an hour and handles 20,000 to 25,000 users at any given time, still less than half the original target.

In fact, The Washington Post reported officials working on the troubled Web site now believe it is unlikely to be fully operational by the administration’s November 30 deadline. Still, Park maintained at the hearing that they will meet the deadline.

TODD PARK: The team set a goal of having healthcare.gov function smoothly for the vast majority of Americans. The team is working incredibly hard to meet that goal.

DARRELL ISSA: I thank the gentleman.

MAN: With secure information?

TODD PARK: With secure information.

KWAME HOLMAN: That point will be crucial. A separate House committee heard today that healthcare.gov already has been targeted unsuccessfully, at least once, by a denial of service attack.

The day’s hearings came as Republicans and some Democrats ratcheted up pressure on the administration over the cancellations of millions of existing policies. President Obama promised repeatedly people who like their coverage could keep it. And just yesterday, former President Clinton urged him to make good on the pledge.

On the Senate side, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Mary Landrieu are co-sponsoring legislation to guarantee that happens. Still, at the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney cautioned today against legislative action.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: We don’t believe that proposed legislation that actually causes more problems than it fixes is the right way to go. But we are interested in other avenues that actually address the problems identified. And, as I just said, the president tasked his team, as he mentioned last week, to come up with proposed solutions, and you can expect us to be announcing something sooner rather than later.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his Democratic Caucus will meet with White House officials tomorrow. Meanwhile, the House plans to vote Friday on a bill letting people keep their existing coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beyond the issue of cancellations, the question of expanding coverage to uninsured Americans looms large. The Obama administration had hoped to get seven million more people enrolled in the first year of the new exchanges.

Many experts question whether that’s still doable. But during a conference call today, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters that when the state of Massachusetts passed its own law, enrollment there started very slowly, just 123 people in the first month.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary: We know from experience in the Bay State that people tend to research and consider their options, talks things over with their families, before making a purchase. This data represents only a month into a sustained six-month enrollment and outreach effort.

 And we’re confident that, as more people across the country learn about their new options, more people will find a plan that meets their needs and their budgets and more will enroll in coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News is with us again tonight. It’s an editorially independent news organization.

Mary Agnes, welcome back to the program.

So what did we learn today from the administration’s official release of these numbers?

MARY AGNES CAREY, Kaiser Health News: Well, they’re lower than expected.

Administration officials for days, for weeks have been trying to dampen expectations these numbers would be great, and they certainly would — they were not. Of the 106,000 people that have enrolled, you have about a quarter of those through the federal exchanges, and those are in 36 states. That’s really a big chunk of states that are being run by the federal government, the exchanges, and then the remaining three-fourths were from the state exchanges, which are set up in about 15 states and the District of Columbia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, three to one that number reflects the state exchanges.

How — to what extent is this consistent with what the administration has been saying?

 

MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, they have been saying publicly that they didn’t expect to have, with all the problems, as has been noted, on healthcare.gov, they didn’t expect great enrollment numbers.

But last week at — last month, rather, at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, Dave Camp, who chairs the committee, had released the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimate that about — they expected by the end of October around 494,000 people would have enrolled. So, this is way below expectations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are they saying, Mary Agnes, about what kind of progress they expect to make? They have this November 30, they say, deadline for getting it up and running. What were they saying today about that?

MARY AGNES CAREY: They were saying that they continue to make fixes, they continue to have confidence that the Web site will work for the majority of users by November 30.

They also caution that this is a long enrollment period. It’s a six-month enrollment period, so let’s not make too much of the fact of the numbers that were announced today, and they also talk about early enrollment for programs that are very popular now, Medicare prescription drug program, for example. Those were pretty low in the early days. So this is really more of a marathon than a sprint when it comes to enrollment, from the administration’s…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And did we learn much — excuse me — did we learn much more today about what the obstacles are, what’s holding this back? Or do we just assume it’s computer problems?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, it was very interesting.

On the call itself, one of the reporters said he had just tried to create an account and couldn’t do it. And one of the officials of the administration said, well, that’s really an anomaly. You’re kind of an outlier, because most people can get on now and create accounts.

But it’s very clear from the hearings on Capitol Hill and from people’s experiences they still have a lot of problems with the Web site that they have got to correct and they have got to smooth out, because I think when people are frustrated they don’t necessarily go back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we also — but they also — I mean, I did listen to part of the call, and you heard them talking about the number — they gave some larger numbers for people who have begun the process of signing up…

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … who are looking, exploring. Does that tell us something about the interest in this or did they have any speculation about that?

MARY AGNES CAREY: That’s a great point.

There are about one million folks who have signed up and created accounts and gotten eligibility determinations. They haven’t yet made up their mind, and as the secretary was just saying, they — people are looking, they’re shopping, they’re looking at their options, trying to figure out if they qualify for a subsidy.

So, that number does provide some Comfort for the administration. And they talk about all the interest, all the people who are coming to the site, the millions of people who are checking it out, kind of kicking the tires to see if it works for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they’re saying that — again, that this is what happened in Massachusetts. Right?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right, exactly, and they’re a little farther along than Massachusetts was at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Mary Agnes, stay with us. We’re going to come back to you in just a moment — Gwen.