Thursday November 26th, 2015 7:27AM

White House posts low health care signups

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Putting a statistic on disappointment, the Obama administration revealed Wednesday that fewer than 27,000 people signed up for private health insurance last month in the 36 states relying on a problem-filled federal website.

States running their own enrollment systems did better, signing up more than 79,000, for a total enrollment of over 106,000.

Still, that was barely one-fifth of the nearly 500,000 people administration officials had projected would sign up the first month of Obama's signature program, a numerical rebuke to the administration's ability to deliver on its promise. The 106,185 people who made it all the way through to selecting a plan represent just 1.5 percent of the 7 million people the administration hopes to enroll by next year.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said things will get better, and quickly. "There is no doubt the level of interest is strong," she said.

The administration said an additional 1 million or so applicants have been found eligible for government-subsidized private coverage in new state-level insurance markets, and about half are within sight of having their plans lined up for the start of next year. An additional 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, the safety-net program that is shaping up as the health care law's early success story.

The numbers landed amid a political storm on Capitol Hill. Democrats who had hoped to run for re-election next year on the success of the health care law are increasingly worried.

It's not only the website woes, but a wave of cancellation notices hitting constituents whose individual health insurance policies don't measure up to the law's requirements. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled an all-Democrats meeting Thursday with White House health care officials.

The administration has staked its credibility on turning the website around by the end of this month. From the president on down, officials have said that will be running smoothly for the vast majority of users by Nov. 30.

Some outside experts are concerned. "People are starting to get nervous because there is not enough indication from the government that things are on track," said Caroline Pearson, who runs the health reform practice at Avalere Health, a market analysis firm. "You wonder if there are still underlying programming problems that are causing the system to shut down when volume is high."

Administration officials have not specified what "running smoothly" means, or what would constitute the "vast majority" of users.

On daily media calls, Health and Human Services department officials have described a situation where problems get fixed and then new issues crop up as consumers are able to venture further into the website. It's a bit like traffic heading back to a city late on a summer Sunday: You get past one jam, and odds are you run into another.

There was a hopeful sign this Tuesday when Julie Bataille, HHS communications director for the rollout, said that 275,000 people who got hung up in the early days are being invited back to try to complete their applications. The administration is sending the email invitations in batches, so as not to risk any disruptions. White House chief technology officer Todd Park told Congress on Wednesday that system response times are much faster, and error rates have plunged.

But other signals have raised questions. In a blog post on Saturday, Bataille quoted chief White House troubleshooter Jeff Zients as saying improvements would continue in "December, January, February - just like you do with any website."

Asked whether the Nov. 30 target was still achievable, Bataille said on Tuesday, "I want to be clear that our plan remains the same. We are on a path to make improvements week by week so that by the end of November, the site will be working for the vast majority of users."

It's unlikely that Congress will let the effort keep floundering much beyond Nov. 1. Millions of lawmakers' constituents are losing current individual policies that don't meet the law's requirements. To guarantee they don't experience a break in coverage they would have to select new plans by Dec. 15. That's a major political problem for Democrats who so far have stood by the president.

The main federal website is central because other enrollment routes, from call centers to counselors to paper applications received by mail, all depend on having that access.

"They either need to get up and functioning smoothly, or they need to come up with work-arounds so enrollments can be processed without going through the website," Pearson said.

In Congress earlier Wednesday, the House's chief investigator plunged into the technical issues behind the dysfunctional rollout.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is investigating a long list of issues: insufficient testing, possible security flaws, design shortcomings - even allegations of political meddling.

But as his hearing went on, there didn't seem to be a "smoking gun" behind the technical failure that has mortified supporters of the health care law and cheered its opponents. The technology's cost to taxpayers: north of $600 million and climbing.

It was the sixth major congressional hearing since computerized insurance markets went live Oct. 1 and millions of consumers encountered frozen screens. The oversight committee was sharply divided along partisan lines.

"Established best practices of our government were not used in this case," said Issa. As a result, the law's promise of affordable health insurance "does not exist today in a meaningful way." Like other Republicans, Issa wants the law repealed, not fixed.

Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland questioned Issa's fairness.

Addressing Issa directly, Cummings said: "Over the past month, instead of working in a bipartisan manner to improve the website, you've politicized this issue by repeatedly making unfounded allegations."
© Copyright 2015
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
S&P 500 index has its best year since 1997
The stock market closed out a record year with more all-time highs on Tuesday, giving U.S. indexes their biggest annual gains in almost two decades.
6:56PM ( 1 year ago )
Colorado readies for 'Green Wednesday' pot sales
Police were adding extra patrols around pot shops in eight Colorado towns that plan to allow recreational sales to anyone over 21 on Jan. 1.
1:52PM ( 1 year ago )
Kerry seeks framework for Mideast peace talks
A senior State Department official says Secretary of State John Kerry will try this week to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a framework for negotiating a final peace agreement, yet cautions against raising expectations for Kerry's latest round of shuttle diplomacy.
1:35PM ( 1 year ago )
U.S. News
Missing Ga. bank director arrested in Brunswick
A bank director accused of losing millions of investors' dollars before vanishing last year was arrested Tuesday during a traffic stop in a city in south Georgia.
7:00PM ( 1 year ago )
Amtrak to suspend some Crescent service in Jan., Feb.
Amtrak service will shut down in parts of the Southeast for several days in January and February for rail maintenance by Norfolk Southern Railway.
9:00AM ( 1 year ago )
Lung cancer scans urged for some smokers, not all
Certain current or former heavy smokers should start getting yearly scans for lung cancer to cut their risk of death from the nation's top cancer killer, government advisers said Monday - even as they stressed that the tests aren't for everyone.
7:26AM ( 1 year ago )
Business News
Sex offender held in Hall County for failing to register
A 47-year-old man was booked into the Hall County Jail Tuesday, being held without bond for allegedly failing to register as a sex offender, his second such arrest.
6:09PM ( 1 year ago )
Pharmacy robberies may involve same suspect
Oakwood Police Tuesday afternoon released details in a pharmacy robbery they're investigating, similar to one that happened in the Hall County Tuesday morning.
5:46PM ( 1 year ago )
Victim critical following apartment fire
A 41-year-old woman was in critical but stable condition Tuesday after being rescued from an apartment fire in Forsyth County late Monday afternoon.
3:16PM ( 1 year ago )
Local/State News
Feeling US snub, Saudis strengthen ties elsewhere
Increasingly vocal in its frustration over U.S. policies in the Mideast, Saudi Arabia is strengthening ties elsewhere, seeking out an alignment that will bolster its position after it was pushed to the sidelines this year.
4:34PM ( 1 year ago )
NSA reportedly intercepts computer deliveries
A German magazine has lifted the lid on the operations of the National Security Agency's hacker unit, revealing how American spies intercepted computer deliveries, exploited hardware vulnerabilities, and even hijacked Microsoft's bug report system to spy on their targets.
12:31PM ( 1 year ago )
Rockets fired from Lebanon into Israel
Rockets from Lebanon struck northern Israel on Sunday, causing no injuries but sparking an Israeli reprisal shelling in a rare flare-up between the two countries.
12:26PM ( 1 year ago )
Obama grants reprieve to turkeys 'Honest' and 'Abe' during White House ceremony
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama spared two turkeys named for one of the nation's most admired presidents, continuing a White House tradition that provides a refreshing sense of amusement and...
9:18PM ( 10 hours ago )
The Latest: UN Security Council strongly condemns 'horrifying' attack in Mali, urges probe
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The latest on the attack on a hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako. (All times local):___4:55 a.m.The U.N. Security Council is condemning "the horrifying terrorist attack" at the...
10:58PM ( 5 days ago )
World leaders vow vigorous response to Paris terror spree, but little indication of next steps
ANTALYA, Turkey (AP) — World leaders vowed a vigorous response to the Islamic State group's terror spree in Paris as they opened a two-day meeting in Turkey on Sunday, with President Barack Obama call...
2:14PM ( 1 week ago )
Rash of E. coli cases in Pacific Northwest highlights problem of foodborne illnesses
SEATTLE (AP) — As Chipotle prepares to reopen its restaurants in the Pacific Northwest this week after an E. coli outbreak that sickened about 45 people, health experts say foodborne illnesses are mor...
1:40AM ( 2 weeks ago )
Biden says he will not run for president in 2016, finalizing field of Democratic candidates
Vice President Joe Biden will not run for president in 2016, he said Wednesday, ending a months-long flirtation with a third White House campaign and setting him on a glide path toward the end of his decades-long political career.
1:34PM ( 1 month ago )