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Highmark health plan enrollment skyrockets from

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The White House admitted previously that the launch of, where people can sign up for health insurance, was a debacle and the Obama administration pledged that the vast majority of potential customers would be able to enroll online by the end of November.

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By Alex Nixon

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 3:09 p.m.

Uninsured Pennsylvanians are having better luck finalizing insurance coverage through the once-gummed-up government exchange.

Highmark Inc., the state's largest health insurer, said on Tuesday that the number of people it has enrolled for so-called Obamacare policies has jumped sixfold in the past four weeks. Highmark said 10,112 people bought its plans as of Dec. 9 — up from 1,665 on Nov. 12.

The growing success in signing up uninsured individuals occurred as the federal government worked feverishly to iron out the technical kinks in the exchange it runs for Pennsylvania and 35 other states that had made it nearly impossible for people to enroll for coverage.

The federal government had set a Nov. 30 deadline to resolve the technical problems that caused significant bottlenecks — a goal officials said they have met — and spurred a groundswell criticism for President Obama's signature health care program.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Affordable Care Act, said it would release on Wednesday national and statewide enrollment numbers for November. The numbers are expected to be much improved compared with October.

The government's website, which debuted Oct. 1, was plagued by technical problems and high volumes of traffic that overwhelmed the system for weeks. After many fixes and upgrades, the government on Dec. 1 said the site was functioning properly for most users.

The site is capable of serving 800,000 shoppers a day and as many as 50,000 at a time, officials have said.

“Our enrollment has increased significantly since the website has been working more smoothly,” Highmark spokeswoman Kristin Ash said. She couldn't provide numbers since the beginning of this month.

Two other insurers offering plans through — Aetna Inc. and UPMC Health Plan — declined to provide enrollment numbers.

Highmark said a large number of enrollees selected its Community Blue health plans, a low-cost option that excludes UPMC hospitals and doctors. Seventy-six percent of people in Western Pennsylvania and 80 percent in Central Pennsylvania chose those plans, the company said, even though Community Blue does not cover visits to doctors and hospitals from UPMC, one of the state's largest health systems.

“We believe that select-network plans, like Community Blue, are one of the health insurance industry's best tools to help members lower their health care costs,” said Deborah Rice-Johnson, president of Highmark's insurance division.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood declined to comment.

Even with low enrollment through the first month of the website's operation, Highmark's plans emerged as a clear favorite among Pennsylvanians. Across the state, 2,207 people enrolled for coverage during October, compared with more than 1,600 who selected a Highmark plan in October and the first 12 days of November.

An estimated 12 percent of the state's 12.7 million population is uninsured, according to a recent study by the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

“We expect that enrollment will continue to rise as individuals better understand the plan benefits and the cost of the plans and then take the action to enroll,” Ash said.

Uninsured people have until Dec. 23 to enroll if they want coverage to begin on Jan. 1. But people can enroll until March 31 to avoid tax penalties for not having health insurance in 2014.

The Obama administration has said it needs to sign up 7 million uninsured people for 2014.

Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or




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