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Obamacare sign-ups continue to increase

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WASHINGTON — Growing numbers of Americans are signing up for insurance through President Obama's health law, with more than 250,000 selecting a plan in November, according to a new government report.

That is more than double the number in October, when problems with the new HealthCare.gov website made enrollment virtually impossible in most states for long stretches of time.

Last month's tally is fueling renewed optimism among supporters of the Affordable Care Act who believe that fixes to the federal site will rescue the law, commonly known as Obamacare, from its disastrous debut.

"Now, as more Americans give HealthCare.gov a second look, they're finding the experience is night and day compared to where we were back in October. And they're responding by shopping for plans and enrolling in greater numbers," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Enrollment continued to be strongest in California, which runs its own insurance marketplace and website. Covered California, as the marketplace is known, recorded 107,000 sign-ups in its first two months.

The federal figures also showed that 181,817 Californians have qualified for an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program for the poor.

California officials have been struggling to deal with a surge of applicants in recent weeks while they dig through a backlog of paper applications. The average wait time for consumers calling Covered California hit 36 minutes last week, up from 25 the previous week.

Other states have posted smaller enrollment numbers, but consumer interest remains strong. Nationwide, 3.7 million people submitted applications in the last two months for coverage through state and federal marketplaces.

Of those, more than 803,000 were found eligible for coverage through government Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program, according to the report.

The 2010 health law created the online marketplaces for Americans who do not get coverage at work. Consumers select among plans that offer at least a basic set of benefits. Those making less than four times the federal poverty level — or about $94,000 for a family of four — qualify for government subsidies to offset the cost of their premiums.

In half the states, very poor Americans will qualify for virtually free Medicaid coverage under the law.

The November enrollment figures still leave the Obama administration far below its target of enrolling 7 million people in health plans, though administration officials expressed optimism they will hit that number.

But the new enrollees are still outnumbered by the many people who are losing coverage because their insurance companies canceled plans that do not meet the new standards mandated by the health law.

"More Americans will have seen their healthcare plans canceled than gained coverage under Obamacare," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) charged Wednesday.

It also remains unclear how many people who signed up for health coverage will actually get an insurance card before Jan. 1. Widespread problems in the transmission of consumer information from HealthCare.gov to insurance carriers has led the Obama administration to estimate that as many as a quarter of the applications processed in October and November contained errors.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the agency that runs HealthCare.gov, said federal officials continue to work with insurers to correct those errors, but would not say how many applications have been verified.

Sebelius has ordered an internal review of her department's work on the botched rollout of the site.

Even with the ongoing problems, the latest enrollment report marks a major improvement on October's tally, when a paltry 106,000 people nationwide selected a health plan through the marketplaces.

The acceleration in sign-ups was particularly pronounced in the 36 states that rely on the federal government and its HealthCare.gov site for enrollment. The other states run their own sites.

More than 110,000 people chose a plan in November through the federally run marketplace, more than four times the number in October. Enrollment on the federal marketplace increased even more quickly in the first week of December after major website repairs were made, with more than 50,000 sign-ups, according to an official familiar with the numbers. December enrollment numbers have not been officially tallied.

States running their own marketplaces, including California, New York and Connecticut, have generally seen higher enrollment than the federal marketplace, largely because they have had far fewer website problems.

California and New York account for nearly half of all new enrollees nationally.

Altogether, the 14 states with their own marketplaces and the District of Columbia tallied more than 227,000 sign-ups in October and November. A handful of states running marketplaces have also had major website issues, including Maryland, where just 3,758 people signed up for coverage in the last two months.

The biggest numbers in states relying on the federal government came from Florida, with nearly 18,000 enrollees in the last two months, and Texas, with more than 14,000. Both states have large populations of uninsured residents.

More than 7,000 Illinois residents selected a marketplace health plan over the two-month period.

Health and Human Services officials said web improvements are continuing, and they anticipate even swifter enrollment as the six-month open enrollment period continues. Consumers who want coverage starting Jan. 1 must select a plan by Dec. 23 and pay their premium by the end of the year.

The enrollment period lasts until March 31. Many consumers are not expected to act until next year.

noam.levey@latimes.com

Twitter: @noamlevey

Times staff writer Chad Terhune in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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