After website woes decrease, Obamacare enrollment surges in Florida, nation

Willem Muller and Kettely Mesidor consider their health plan options with the help of Sunshine Life and Health Advisors agent Jose Hernandez. The couple were among many who stood on line Wednesday to beat the Obamacare deadline to enroll in a health plan by Dec. 23 for Jan. 1 coverage.
Willem Muller and Kettely Mesidor consider their health plan options with the help of Sunshine Life and Health Advisors agent Jose Hernandez. The couple were among many who stood on line Wednesday to beat the Obamacare deadline to enroll in a health plan by Dec. 23 for Jan. 1 coverage.
CW Griffin / Miami Herald Staff

Nearly 300,000 Floridians have signed up for Affordable Care Act plans, an 88 percent increase in a month, reflecting an enrollment surge that coincides with the end of Obamacare's major website woes.

Florida’s number of enrollees, the second-highest in the nation behind California, accounts for almost 9 percent of the nation’s 3.3 million total enrollees, according to figures released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But though federal officials praised the nationwide increases — a 53 percent uptick of nearly 1.15 million Americans in a month — fewer people will likely sign up for ACA plans than initially anticipated.

The rollout of the new numbers came on the same day that Vice President Joe Biden headlined a Coral Gables fundraiser and stopped by the iconic Allen’s Drug Store, where he took a shot at Republican Obamacare critics and talked up the new enrollment numbers.

“What we're talking about here is not the gross numbers,” Biden said. “These are people who actually are in the neighborhood.”

Biden said the federal health law “is finally on track” after a slow start due to the botched Obamacare sign-up website.

But the ACA faces challenges.

So far, the proportion of young-adult enrollees might be too low. And that could affect the financial soundness of some plans.

About 25 percent of those who have so far signed up nationwide — 23 percent in Florida — are between the ages of 18 to 34. But initial Obamacare estimates and industry analysts say young people should account for as much as 40 percent of the newly insured population.

Without a significant population of younger people, insurers could have trouble offsetting the costs of care for older, sicker people who will sign up for plans that, in some cases, they couldn’t get before Obamacare. If the proportion of young people is too low, insurers will likely raise rates.

In touting the new numbers, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stressed that the proportion of young adults increased in January by 3 percentage points.

“The covered population is getting younger,” she said. “And much younger Americans are choosing high quality silver, gold or platinum plans.”

HHS officials refused to say what their target number or percentage is for young enrollees now. They wouldn’t say how many people who signed up for ACA plans didn’t have insurance before. Nor would they say how many enrollees have started paying for their plans.

And they could not provide an estimate about the number of enrollees who are Hispanic, the least-insured ethnicity in the nation.

“We are encouraged by the number of people that we have seen enroll in plans. Our goal is to enroll as many people as possible,” Julie Bataille, a health agency spokeswoman, said in a conference call with reporters.

“Every individual who is enrolled in a health plan is a success story,” she said. “Those Americans now have access to quality affordable coverage that they didn’t before.”

She said the government is reaching out to people through Twitter, Google hangouts and TV ads that run during the Olympics and National Basketball Association broadcasts.

Enrollment this year will likely be lower than expected because so many people didn’t sign up for Obamacare when its website barely worked after its Oct. 1 launch, according to a Congressional Budget Office report last week. CBO estimated that 6 million people — 1 million fewer than initially projected — would sign up.

If the same number of people who signed up in January continue to enroll by the March 31 deadline, Obamacare could fall short of the 6 million enrollee estimate by as many as 700,000 people.

Bataille, however, said officials expect last-minute rush of people who will sign up just before deadline, thereby increasing the enrollment rate.

The website woes aside, the Affordable Care Act would likely have more enrollees if states such as Florida took a more active role in administering the program, judging by the enrollment statistics.

Along with 35 other states, Florida has left the program’s management in the hands of the federal government, which runs the so-called “exchanges” online. Those states’ total enrollment: 1.9 million.

The remaining 15 states and the District of Columbia that manage their own exchanges have about 1.4 million enrollees, a far higher enrollment rate.

Florida has the second-highest rate of the nation’s uninsured, with about 1 in 4 lacking coverage. The state, like others controlled by Republicans, has refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

Gov. Rick Scott tepidly called for the Medicaid expansion, but was met with stiff resistance from fellow Republicans who control the Legislature. They say expanding Medicaid would eventually cost the state too much while delivering substandard care. Scott stopped talking about the issue last year.

“If your governor would take the money,” Biden said during his Miami visit, “there would be another 880,000 people covered.”

Still, as more information about the law has been publicized, more eligible people have signed up for Medicaid, including 21,847 children, state analysts say.

Florida’s total Obamacare enrollment of 296,892 so far was second only to California, which has a state-run exchange and reported 728,086 enrollees.

New York, which also runs a state exchange, had nearly 212,000 people sign up. Texas, which has no exchange and has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, counts just more than 207,000.

In Florida and the nation, about 56 percent of those in Affordable Care Act plans are women, who can no longer be charged far higher premiums just because of their gender.

“Being a woman, under the Affordable Care Act, is no longer a pre-existing condition,” Sebelius said, echoing a frequent campaign-trail line of President Obama’s.

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