What a difference six months makes to Obamacare.
A massive flood of health insurance shoppers deluged the government-run exchanges over the weekend and into Monday, rushing to beat the midnight enrollment deadline under the Affordable Care Act.
The influx of up to 1.5 million visitors by noon on the federal HealthCare.gov exchange led to a brief lag in its ability to handle new applications at midday, but that was quickly resolved.
The surge came as a new report suggested that at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have obtained health coverage since the October launch of Obamacare plans and Medicaid marketed by the exchanges. That report also suggested fewer than 1 million previously insured people had been left uninsured because their old plans did not meet new ACA requirements.
Those statistics, which come from a Rand research group survey and other data reported by the Los Angeles Times, are good news for Obamacare advocates, if they are borne out, and will present a political quandary for Republicans who hope to repeal the ACA.
However, it will be weeks before the official enrollment tallies are available following the close of enrollment Monday.
The tsunami of procrastinators to the exchanges seem poised to push nationwide enrollment via the exchanges either to or very close to 7 million people—which was the Obama administration's original estimate last summer.
Hitting that tally would represent a remarkable turnaround from October's disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov and several other state-run exchanges, whose crippled systems were unable to enroll meaningful numbers of people for nearly two months.
During that time, the administration engaged in a frantic effort to repair HealthCare.gov, as debate raged about whether several key Obamacare provisions, including the mandate for obtaining health coverage, should be scrapped or delayed because of the troubled rollout.
Because of those problems, the administration in recent weeks had revised its goal down to 6 million enrollees—a target officials announced they had hit last week.
A whopping 2 million people visited the since-repaired HealthCare.gov exchange over this past weekend, and 2.5 million in the past week phoned the call center that supports that federally run exchange—more than the tally for the entire month of February, according to the Health and Human Services Department.
HealthCare.gov was down for several hours early Monday morning due to issues surrounding a software fix technicians were performing—unrelated to volume—but was up and running normally by midmorning. However, after noon, the site began displaying a message notifying visitors they would have to wait to apply or enroll because of the high volume of visitors, and shortly after that the site said it was unable accept no no applications. In less than an hour, the application function was restored for new users, but people online were still experiencing long waits, in some cases.
"Americans are lining up, calling up and getting online in communities across the country to join the more than 6 million Americans who've signed up for quality, affordable health insurance," a White House official said, referring to last week's announcement of that enrollment milestone.
"This surge of Americans interested in getting covered continues as the administration and stakeholders make a final push to help Americans sign up by the March 31st deadline."
That push included an appearance by Vice President Joe Biden on the "Rachael Ray Show," and interviews and media appearances by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as well as senior Obama advisors Valerie Jarrett and Phil Schiliro.
The Obama administration is focusing much of its efforts on areas of the country with high percentages of uninsured people. An unknown number of those people signed up for insurance plans to meet Monday's deadline, which is the day nearly all Americans must now have some form of health coverage by this year, or face a tax penalty next year.
However, people who started their application on HealthCare.gov and several other states, but ran into technical problems that left them unable to complete their enrollment, will be eligible for grace periods of varying lengths.
In addition to HealthCare.gov, which sells Obamacare plans in 36 states, California and Oregon have announced formal grace periods for stalled applicants. New York and Washington states have said they will allow some wiggle room for applicants who made a good faith effort to hit the deadline, but were unable to complete their enrollment for technical or other reasons.
New York state's exchange said that nearly 100,000 people had enrolled in either private Obamacare plans or Medicaid coverage in the past week, boosting total enrollment in both coverage options to more than 812,000 people.
"We're thrilled," said Donna Frescatore, executive director of the exchange, New York State of Health, which over the weekend ran radio ads featuring former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar encouraging people to enroll on the exchange. "Activity on the site is about as high as we've experienced. New Yorkers should not delay. The time to enroll in coverage is now."
In its report Monday morning, the LA Times cited a survey from the Rand research group and other data to provide a snapshot of Obamacare enrollment that indicates the program has become the "largest expansion of health coverage in a half century."
The report said that about one-third of the 6 million enrollees on the government-run exchanges were previously uninsured, and that at least 4.5 million adults who previously lacked insurance had signed up for government-run Medicaid programs since the launch of the Obamacare exchanges. Another 3 million adults under the age of 26 have been covered by their parents' health plans as a result of the Obamacare provision mandating that option for such plans.
And 9 million people have purchased individual or family insurance plans directly from insurers, instead of via the exchanges. Most of those people were previously insured, according to the Rand study cited by the Times.
Rand also found that less than 1 million people lost coverage, and are now uninsured because their old insurance plans are not compliant with the ACA, which requires certain minimum standards, including free preventative screenings.
If the Times report holds up, and it turns out that 9.5 million previously uninsured people gained coverage this year, it would fall short of the revised 13 million person estimate the Congressional Budget Office made in February.
"We are talking about a very small fraction of the country," Rand economist Katherine Carman told the Times.
But the close of enrollment Monday still leaves unclear for now the exact percentages of people who have or will make their first month's payments, the number of enrollees who were previously uninsured and the number of previously insured now without insurance. All of the questions have been issues of dispute between Obamacare advocates and critics.
It also remains to be seen how much premium prices for insurance increase next year. Insurers are set to begin setting proposed rates for 2015 soon, and could end up hiking their prices considerably if they see too few younger enrollees, or too many sick enrollees, this year.