Obamacare toothache! Enrollment numbers were juiced up

The Obama administration wanted sweeter numbers for Obamacare, so it got some help from dentists.

A new report Thursday revealed the administration pulled a fast-one with enrollment numbers for Obamacare, boosting a tally by including up to 400,000 dental plans—without publicly disclosing that fact at the time.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell within hours took to Twitter to call the misstatement "unacceptable" and promised to take action "to ensure this kind of mistake does not occur again."

But that didn't stem widespread criticism for HHS's lack of transparency on the issue, with a top House Republican demanding that the Obama administration "must explained padded Obamacare enrollment figures," including who knew about them and when they knew it.

In May, the administration had said that about 8 million people had enrolled in individual Obamacare health plans, and also said that another 1.1 million were separately enrolled in dental plans.

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But in September, when Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner announced there were 7.3 million "Americans enrolled in Health Insurance Marketplace coverage," and failed to mention that dental plan numbers were part of that tally, noted the story Thursday in Bloomberg News.

Because of that, news reports treated it as if Obamacare enrollment had dropped by about 700,000 people in the intervening months. That number was seen as reflecting the fact that some people failed to pay for the premiums for their individual plans, got coverage elsewhere, or dropped out for other reasons. The general health press has barely, at best, ever paid attention to dental plans enrollment numbers, and like Obamacare advocates and detractors has focused on the number of people enrolled in health plans that cover primary care doctors, specialists, hospitals and prescription drugs.

But without the dental numbers being included, the tally of individual Obamacare enrollees would have fallen below 7 million people, to 6.97 million in September, Bloomberg reported.

The news outlet cited calculations by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which used data from CMS.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell.
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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell.

The chairman of that committee, California Republican Darrell Issa, said, "After touting 8 million initial sign-ups for medical plans, four months later they engaged in a concerted effort to obscure a heavy drop-off rate of perhaps a million or more enrollees by quietly adding in dental plan sign-ups to exchange numbers."

"Faced with large numbers of Americans running for an exit from Obamacare, instead of offering the public an accurate accounting, the administration offered numbers that obscured and downplayed the number of dropouts," Issa said. "Now they're saying this was just a 'mistake.' The claim that this was only accident[al] stretches credulity. The administration misreported Obamacare's enrollment figures not once, but twice, and officials cautiously changed their statements from 'health plans' to 'marketplace coverage.' "

The disclosure of the juiced enrollment numbers comes a week after HHS chief Burwell had bragged about how transparent HHS has been about Obamacare data.

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It also comes just five days into Obamacare's second enrollment period. At the same time, Obamacare critics have seized on a series of videos showing Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who acted as a consultant in the designing of Obamacare, describing how the law was written to avoid drawing attention to costs that might have made it unpalatable to the public or to a majority of Congress.

"Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the 'stupidity of the American voter' or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass," Gruber said in one video.

Burwell recently sought to lower expectations about enrollment this season by saying HHS expects just 9.1 million people to be enrolled in Obamacare coverage by the end of 2015, as opposed to the 13 million projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

Burwell last week had said there are about 7.1 million people enrolled in Obamacare coverage as of now. She did not say if that number includes people with dental plans.

But, as it turns out, that number also was inaccurate.

HHS, in a statement released more than an hour after Bloomberg posted it story, said, "A mistake was made in calculating the number of individuals with effectuated Marketplace enrollments. We have determined that individuals who had both Marketplace medical and dental coverage were erroneously counted in our recent announcements. The correct number of individuals with effectuated Marketplace medical coverage as of October 15 is approximately 6.7 million."

"Our target for 2015 open enrollment remains 9.1 million individuals. Moving forward only individuals with medical coverage will be included in our effectuated enrollment numbers," HHS said.

During a Facebook chat with MSNBC's Chris Hayes on Thursday afternoon, Burwell said, "This mistake was unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the department."

"While we understand some will be skeptical, our clarity that this is mistake and the fact that we have quickly corrected the numbers should give people confidence.It is important to continue to focus on the fact that millions of Americans are getting affordable health care," Burwell wrote.

Hayes pressed her later in the chat, asking " Are you going to investigate how the dental enrollment error happened and make those findings public?"

But Burwell punted on answering that directly.

"I have indicated this is unacceptable. I am communicating this clearly throughout the department," she wrote "We will be putting in place measures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again after we understand why it happened. We are continuing to focus on making sure that the consumer has a quality experience and is able to find affordable health coverage throughhealthcare.gov, localhelp.healthcare.gov."

But Issa, the House Republican, said, "HHS must provide a clear and detailed account of who knew about this decision and when they knew it."

"This Administration still appears to be calling its Obamacare transparency plan from the Jonathan Gruber playbook: dismissing the American public's right to know with the same deceptive arrogance that helped them pass the bill in the first place," Issa said.

Read the full Bloomberg News story here.