Filed Under:Health Insurance, Individual Health

HHS exchanges sign 1.1 million private plan applicants

An Illinois assister helps a woman explore the exchange system. (AP photo/David Mercer)
An Illinois assister helps a woman explore the exchange system. (AP photo/David Mercer)

HONOLULU (AP) — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says 1.1 million people have picked private "qualified health plans" (QHPs) through the public exchanges it runs.

A December surge helped the HHS exchanges overcome the technical problems that plagued the HHS exchanges' HealthCare.gov enrollment website in October and November, Obama administration officials said today.

About 975,000 people signed up for QHP coverage through the HHS exchanges in December. It's not clear how many picked plans in time for their coverage to start Jan. 1.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange program open enrollment period started Oct. 1.

The HHS exchanges took in 27,000 completed QHP applications in October and said 137,000 people picked QHPs in November.

"We experienced a welcome surge in enrollment as millions of Americans seek access to affordable health care coverage," Marilyn Tavenner, the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said in a blog post.

CMS, an arm of HHS, is running HHS exchanges in 36 states.

CMS is still waiting for December plan selection results from the 14 states running their own websites.

In October and November, state-based exchanges were signing up more QHP buyers than the HHS exchanges were. Activity has been especially strong in states like California, New York, Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut. State-run exchanges in some other states have struggled.

This week, exchange officials in New York state have said that 200,000 people have used their exchange to enroll either in QHPs or in Medicaid plans.

Officials in California said their exchange had helped 430,000 people enroll in some kind of coverage.

A full 50-state enrollment report is due next month.

QHP issuers have agreed voluntarily to give all QHP applicants until Jan. 10 to pay for coverage that starts Jan. 1, according to America's Health Insurance Plans. Issuers in some states could give consumers up until Jan. 31 to pay for January coverage.

For now, HHS is using whether a consumer has completed the application process and picked a QHP, not paid sales, as the early QHP enrollment activity indicator. 

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) originally estimated that the exchanges might enroll 7 million people in QHP coverage by the end of 2014.

Shortly before Oct. 1, when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange program open enrollment period started, the Obama administration was estimating that total QHP enrollment in HHS and state-based exchanges could reach 3.3 million by the end of 2013.

In addition to looking at QHP enrollment numbers, PPACA implementation watchers are starting to talk about how well the QHP coverage will really work in January.

Even though HealthCare.gov has been working better for consumers, insurers say they still have trouble pulling applicatio data out of the enrollment system computers. The technical problems and the flood of last-minute signups could lead to problems for some consumers who try to use new QHP coverage early on.

The Obama administration has tried to ease the sting for other consumers -- 4.7 million people who lost individual policies because of policy cancellations at least partly related to PPACA -- by exempting those consumers from the "shared responsibility" penalty that will apply to many consumers who fail to own a minimum level of health coverage.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said today on NBC's "Meet The Press" that "Obamacare is a reality."

Issa predicted that the PPACA exchange program, and the PPACA tax credit subsidies that will help some consumers pay for QHP coverage, will increase overall health care costs.

"The fact that people well into the middle class are going to get subsidies is going to cause them to look at health care...sort of in a Third World way," Issa said. "Do we get subsidies from the government for our milk, for our gasoline and, oh, by the way, for our health care."

Allison Bell and Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report. 

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