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Following national trend, Obamacare enrollees paltry in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 11:39 p.m.
Reuters
Chief Technology Officer for the White House, Todd Park, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on 'Obamacare' implementation on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 13, 2013.

The Obama administration disclosed on Wednesday that 2,207 Pennsylvanians enrolled for health insurance through the problem-plagued federal website in its first month of operation, providing fuel for critics who have said the president's signature program needs to be delayed and revamped.

The low figure mirrored the national trend in enrollments through online marketplaces set up by the states and federal government under the Affordable Care Act. The numbers confirmed what many anticipated, given bottlenecks and technical problems that have hobbled the website the federal government runs.

The government said 26,794 people enrolled for insurance between Oct. 1 and Nov. 2 on the federal site that serves Pennsylvania and 35 other states. States running their own marketplaces did better, signing up more than 79,000, for a total national enrollment of about 106,000.

The overall figure is one-fifth of the nearly 500,000 people officials projected would sign up in the first month, a numerical rebuke to the administration's ability to deliver on its promise.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh County said the “numbers are further evidence that the president's health care law is a train wreck in the making.”

Administration officials acknowledged that technical problems and overwhelming traffic kept initial enrollment low but stuck to a pledge that the site would run smoothly by the end of the month.

“We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of implementing the law known as Obamacare.

The administration hopes to enroll 7 million people through 2014.

Highmark Inc., the state's largest health insurer, criticized Healthcare.gov for producing low enrollment in the first month.

“There is an urgent need to improve the functionality so that consumers can enroll,” spokeswoman Kristin Ash said.

Open enrollment runs through March 31, but to have coverage on Jan. 1, people must sign up by Dec. 15.

Despite the glitches, Highmark's health plans appeared to be an early favorite among people who were able to complete the shopping process. The company picked up 827 individuals through Nov. 2, or 37 percent of enrollees in the state.

That number doubled to 1,665 by Nov. 12, a trend Ash called “encouraging.”

UPMC Health Plan, the insurance arm of hospital giant UPMC, said it enrolled fewer than 200 people to date.

Aetna Inc., which is selling health plans on the website in Western Pennsylvania under its HealthAmerica subsidiary, declined to say how many people it enrolled.

On a conference call with reporters, Sebelius would not provide information on ages of enrollees. Young people, who are typically less costly to insure because they tend to be healthier, may not sign up for coverage because it is likely that premiums will cost more than the penalty they face for not carrying coverage. If most people who buy insurance are older and sicker, insurers might raise premiums.

The ages of people who bought from Highmark so far are “skewing older,” Ash said, though she noted that “enrollment volumes are still low, so demographics at this point may not provide a total picture.”

She said “a large portion” of shoppers selected Highmark Community Plans, the least expensive plans for sale in the region. Those plans exclude UPMC hospitals and doctors as in-network providers.

Obamacare opponents have criticized the president for promising that people could keep existing health insurance even as cancellation notices hit people whose individual health insurance policies didn't measure up to the law's requirements.

In Pennsylvania, Highmark and other nonprofit Blue Cross companies sold tens of thousands of those plans to people with chronic illnesses who could not obtain coverage elsewhere.

Ash said Highmark isn't tracking whether people whose plans were cancelled have purchased plans through the website.

“They may enroll with us or with another carrier, so it's difficult to determine exactly where each of those have gone in the system,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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