Obamacare Enrollment Down 18% in Feb; HHS: 'We Don't Think We Had a Decline'

Susan Jones | March 12, 2014 | 8:38am EDT
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HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Health and Human Services officials said February was a "short month," and that may explain why more people enrolled in Obamacare in January than signed up in February.

But don't call the 943,000 February sign-ups a decline from January's 1.146 million!

The 203,000 fewer people who enrolled in Obamcare in February than in January was a drop of 17.7 percent.

"I would note that February's obviously a short month," said Nancy Delew, the acting deputy assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS. "There are 28 days in February. January's a longer month. We also had the period of time covered in the January report included several days from December. December had a lot of enrollment activity. So we don't think that we had a decline in the month of February."

The reporter noted that earlier HHS projections called for 1.27 million people to sign up in February. (The 943,000 who did sign up fell 327,000, or 34.6%, short of HHS's projection.) What about that?

Oh, but "projections are constantly changing," Julie Bataille responded. Bataille, the communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said HHS is "certainly encouraged by the increasing percentage of people that have enrolled and covered. And we think that we are on the right trajectory as we head into the end of March."

Nancy Delew then explained that there was a "29 percent increase in the cumulative number of people who enrolled during the month of January. So we think we're in good shape."

Another reporter asked HHS to clarify how 943,000 enrolled in February is a "cumulative increase" from the 1.146 million enrolled in January.

"So we had a 29 percent growth in the number of people who enrolled during the month of February over the prior four-month period. We've got five months of data in this report today," Delew responded. "What I was just noting was that in each of our reports, when we look at a month, in some of our reports, the number of days in a given month vary, so while we have (943,000) people signing up in the month of February, part of that's an artifact of the days in the month. That's all I'm saying."

HHS officials on Tuesday's conference call repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether they will meet their Obamacare enrollment target of 6 million by March 31. All they would say is they expect "millions more" to enroll by the deadline.

And as for that deadline -- the officials said uninsured people must sign up for health coverage on the Obamacare exchanges by March 31 or else pay a penalty, and that is one deadline that will not change:

"You should just know that we have no plans to extend the open enrollment period," Julie Bataille said. "And in fact, we don't actually have the statutory authority to extend the open enrollment period in 2014."

So how does the law allow the Obama administration to change other deadlines, such as delaying the employer mandate -- but not this one, a reporter asked HHS officials.

"The statute actually directs the secretary to establish the dates for open enrollment in the first year -- that's 2014 open enrollment - by no later than June of 2012," Michael Hash responded. (He directs something called the Office of Health Reform.)

"The secretary did publish regulations related to, among other things, the open enrollment period," Hash continued. "And once that 2014 enrollment period has been set by the regulations directed by the statute, they are set permanently for 2014. So we do not believe we have the authority to extend that period beyond March 31st, and as Julie said, we have no plans to do so."

Hash did not discuss the rollback of other deadlines.

Although HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave an opening statement at the beginning of the conference call, she did not stick around to answer any questions.

In her comments, she pointed to a recent Gallup-Healthways poll showing "that there has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans under the age of 65 who have health insurance, and that increase was seen across demographic groups. Now, this wasn't a coincidence or something that just happened on its own," she said.

But as CNSNews.com has reported, the percentage of uninsured Americans is still higher now than it was in 2008.

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