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Obamacare enrollment far shy of government goal

Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013 | 9:00 AM ET
ACA enrollment on the rise but still short of goal
Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013 | 9:01 AM ET
CNBC's Betha Coombs reports close to 365,000 people have enrolled nationally for health insurance plans through the exchanges in November. More than 4 times as many people signed up for plans in November than in October.

The Obama administration boldly vowed to hit its ambitious target of enrolling 7 million through the Obamacare health exchanges, despite new sign-up numbers that show it has a very long way to go to meet this goal.

A total of 364,682 people were enrolled in private Obamacare insurance plans nationwide by the end of November, according to federal figures released Wednesday.

Officials maintained that number, combined with other new statistics, shows there is a "tremendous demand" for affordable, comprehensive health coverage.

Separately, 803,077 people have been deemed eligible for the government-run Medicaid or Children's Health Insurance Plan programs through the Obamacare marketplaces. That was up from nearly 400,000 in the first month.

Together, nearly 1.2 million people have enrolled in private plans or been deemed eligible for government-run insurance programs through the Obamacare marketplaces.

(Click here to see the government's report.)

The two-month tally in private Obamacare health plans—which came after October saw just 106,185 enrollments nationwide—was dramatically lower than the 1.2 million people that officials had predicted just before the troubled Oct. 1 launch of the government-run marketplaces.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at an Organizing for Action 'Obamacare Summit' at the St. Regis Hotel.
Getty Images
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at an Organizing for Action 'Obamacare Summit' at the St. Regis Hotel.

It's also far off the pace needed to reach the 7 million total that officials had predicted would be signed up via federal- or state-run insurance marketplaces by the March 31 enrollment deadline for nearly all Americans to have some kind of health coverage or face a tax penalty. Even taking into account additional enrollments reported by individual states this month, which CNBC estimates would bring the reported total to date up to 458,806 sign-ups nationwide, leaves the tally well short of original projections.

But when asked by a reporter whether officials had revised their projections in light of lower-than-expected enrollments to date, a top Obamacare administrator instead boldly doubled-down on the original estimate.

(Read more: Obamacare "perfect storm": low enrollment, bad data)

"No, we think we're on track, and we will reach the total that we thought," said Michael Hash, director of the office of health reform in the federal Health and Human Services Department.

"Of course, we're only 2½ months into an open-enrollment period," Hash said. "We expect the bulk of enrollments will occur in the end of the open-enrollment period."

Hash and other officials are hoping that the HealthCare.gov website, the federally run market that sells Obamacare plans in 36 states, will drive much of that enrollment after a large number of software and hardware repairs on the heels of its botched launch.

"We expect the numbers to grow over time, especially with the technical improvements that have been made to the website," said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which operates HealthCare.gov.

After a Dec. 1 relaunch of the improved site, sources said HealthCare.gov enrolled nearly 30,000 people in the first two days, a much-improved rate than seen in the first two months.

Obamacare data errors could delay coverage
CNBC's Dan Mangan talks about a surprisingly large percentage of Obamacare enrollments that contain data problems that could delay the delivery of health coverage.

Before the full effect of many of those fixes took effect Dec. 1, HealthCare.gov had enrolled just 137, 204 people in private insurance plans, according to the HHS report.

Most of those enrollments came in November, when more than 106,000 people signed up, compared with a mere 29,794 in the first month of operation.

(Read more: Healthcare.gov is vastly improved, users)

The federal site was beaten out, easily, by the 15 exchanges run by states and the District of Columbia, which as a group had enrolled 227,478 people by the end of November.

Another 1.9 million people had applied for and received a determination of eligibility for Obamacare plans by the end of November, but had not yet selected a plan, officials said. People have until Dec. 23 to pick a plan, and until Dec. 31 to pay their first premium for that plan to begin coverage by Jan. 1.

Hash cited those applications, and the 39 million online visits to the federal and state exchanges when he said, "The numbers continue to show the tremendous demand."

"More and more Americans are finding affordable, quality coverage that meets their needs is in their reach," Hash said.

(Read more: The threat of inertia to Obamacare enrollment)

He said the federal website is "working smoothly for the vast majority" of users. "We've invited those Americans whose experiences with HealthCare.gov has been frustrating" back to try again on the heels of the fixes, he added.

"It's now easier than ever to shop for a complete plan," Hash said.

However, there were several potentially serious caveats to the announcement.

Officials last week revealed that through the end of November, an estimated one in four enrollments contained some kind of data error when they were transmitted to insurers from HealthCare.gov, errors that could potentially result in a delay in formally enrolling those affected individuals. That error rate had decreased after some fixes to an estimated one in 10 by the beginning of December, officials said, which is still an extremely high error rate in the insurance industry.

CMS' Bataille said officials and private contractors were working with insurers to correct existing enrollments that might have been corrupted by the so-called "834 errors," and to fix the cause of errors that are occurring now.

(Read more: Cancer patient: I'm devastated over Obamacare)

"Our top priority is to make sure that every 834 form both past and present is accurate," Bataille said. An 834 form is the file used to transmit information about an enrollee to insurers.

Bataille also said CMS was working on another problem—a technical hurdle that so far has made it impossible to transmit complete information about people determined eligible for Medicaid and the CHIP programs to the states where they reside.

That hurdle has seriously crippled actual enrollment in those programs via HealthCare.gov, but Batiaille said CMS is "actively working with the states to share that information" in a way that avoids the existing hurdle.

Finally, only about 40 percent of the people enrolled in private Obamacare exchanges so far have been deemed eligible for government tax credits to offset the cost of their insurance. Officials originally predicted that 90 percent enrolled by March 31 would receive those subsidies, which are available to individuals earning about $46,000 or less per year, or about $94,000 or less for a family of four.

"We don't know if that will change by the end of the six-month enrollment period," one official told reporters on a telephone briefing when asked about the 40 percent rate seen so far.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan.

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