Obamacare: Critics seize on low enrollment numbers

<i>This post has been updated with new developments.</i>

WASHINGTON -- Just 106,000 Americans successfully signed up in October for health coverage through President Obama’s healthcare law, the administration announced Wednesday in a report that underscored damage from the botched launch of the law and gave critics new fuel in their effort to roll it back.

The tally falls well short of administration hopes that as many as 500,000 people would select a health plan in the first month of enrollment.

Enrollment has been particularly weak in the 36 states whose new insurance marketplaces are being run by the federal government.


Fewer than 27,000 consumers signed up for coverage on a federally run marketplace. These federal marketplaces rely on the malfunctioning website, which Obama administration officials are scrambling to repair.

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“More people in Michigan have had their healthcare plans canceled than have enrolled nationwide,” said a statement from U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.). He warned the early numbers could foretell “a fundamental breakdown of the insurance market.”

Immediately after the numbers were released, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) renewed his call for legislation that would change the law to prevent Americans from losing access to the healthcare plans they currently have. Obama has been looking for ways to make such changes without involving Congress, where Republicans are looking for any opportunity to repeal the entire law.

“This report is a symbol of the failure of the president’s healthcare law,” Boehner said in a statement. “It is a rolling calamity that must be scrapped.”

Enrollment was stronger in several states that are running their own marketplaces, including California, which had more than 35,000 enrollees in October, more than double any other state.


Despite the relatively low enrollment numbers, administration officials stressed Wednesday that consumer interest in health insurance appears strong.

Nationwide, nearly 1.1 million people have been deemed eligible to get insurance through one of the new marketplaces, according to applications that have been submitted by consumers, the Department of Health and Human Services reported. An additional 396,000 people have been deemed eligible for the government’s Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, officials reported.

“The promise of quality, affordable coverage is increasingly becoming reality in this first wave of applicants,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months.”

“There is no doubt the level of interest is strong. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months, mirroring the pattern that Massachusetts experienced” when it adopted its statewide program for near-universal health coverage. “We also expect that the numbers will grow as the website,, continues to make steady improvements.”

Health policy experts have also cautioned that enrollment is often slow at the start of a new government program.

For example, two-thirds of enrollees in Medicare Part D drug plans did not sign up for a plan until after coverage began in 2006, according to an analysis by Avalere Health, a Washington, D.C.-based health consulting firm.

The Obama administration hopes to ultimately get about 7 million Americans signed up for health coverage through the state and federal marketplaces, including about 2.7 million who are between the ages of 18 and 34.

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Those numbers are viewed as critical to ensuring that the new insurance pools have adequate numbers of healthy consumers to balance the expected influx of sick Americans who are eager to get health coverage.

Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up for insurance if they want to be covered on Jan. 1.

The open enrollment period under the law runs until March 31, however, giving consumers almost three more months in 2014 to select a plan and not be penalized for lacking health coverage.

The release of the low enrollment figures comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill are becoming increasingly nervous over the political impact of the Obamacare rollout. Polls show President Obama’s job approval dropping to the lowest levels of his presidency. The public’s view of whether Obama can be trusted has taken a particularly serious hit.

Obama has had to apologize for the fact that several million Americans have received notices that existing health plans will be canceled in 2014, despite his promises that everyone who had plans they liked could keep them.