U.S. officials won’t provide numbers until November, leaving a state panel unsure if awareness efforts are needed.
Maine lawmakers expressed frustration Monday that the Obama administration has not released data on how many of the state’s residents are signing up for health insurance on the federal exchange that opened Oct. 1.
Members of a panel that is monitoring implementation of the Affordable Care Act said that without enrollment numbers, the state doesn’t know whether it needs to step up public awareness campaigns to tell residents about the exchange and the availability of subsidized coverage.
“We don’t have a lot of people on the ground, beating the bushes to sign (people) up,” Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, told Christine Hager, the Region 1 director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during a publicly aired conference call with the panel Monday. “I strongly encourage you to get us state-level data. It would be very helpful for us to have a sense of what’s going on out there.”
As the panel met in Augusta, President Obama appeared in the White House Rose Garden to defuse criticism of his health care law, in particular the troubled website for the health insurance marketplace, where consumers have had difficulty logging in and applying for coverage.
Public awareness about the health care law remains low, particularly among the uninsured. A Gallup Poll published Monday showed that seven of 10 uninsured Americans are “not too familiar” or “not familiar at all” with the insurance marketplaces.
Nearly 129,000 Mainers are uninsured, according to 2012 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s about 10 percent of the state’s population. The Maine Bureau of Insurance has estimated that 5 to 8 percent of the state’s residents will go to the marketplace for coverage.
Residents must enroll by Dec. 15 for coverage to begin on Jan. 1. With some exceptions, people without health insurance who don’t sign up by Feb. 15 may be penalized on their 2014 tax returns with $95 fines.
The Obama administration rolled out a multimillion-dollar ad campaign before Oct. 1, but that effort was concentrated in states where Republicans had waged aggressive campaigns against the law. Maine Gov. Paul LePage has been an active opponent. He has refused to set up a state-based insurance marketplace, saying in 2012 that Maine “wouldn’t lift a finger” to implement the law.
Nonetheless, high-profile advocacy efforts by the Obama administration have been limited here, confined to advertising on websites and in newspapers.
Officials with the administration say the problems with the online marketplace stem in part from the large number of applicants. The White House reported Saturday that nearly half a million Americans had applied for health insurance through the federal and state exchanges. Federal officials have said that they won’t provide state-specific data until November.
On Monday, Treat urged Hager to release that data sooner.
Health care advocates and insurers have reported that interest has been high since the marketplaces opened, but there has been no way to quantify the interest or determine how many people have bought insurance.
The angst is acute among Democrats. Many have advocated for the federal health care law despite skepticism from the public. The shutdown of the federal government overshadowed the bumpy rollout of healthcare.gov. Now that the stalemate is over, the attention is back on the health care law, a politically divisive issue since it was enacted in 2010.
At least two members of Maine’s congressional delegation echoed the frustration of state officials regarding the rollout of the health care plan.
“I’m extremely frustrated with the technical problems plaguing the rollout, and I urge the administration to act quickly to fix them,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in a statement issued Monday night. “I’d also like the administration to provide state partners the updates they need in order to help ensure that implementation is a success and helps everyone who needs it.”
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a release, “There is no question that the website for the Affordable Care Act has gotten off to a rough start and it’s outrageous that there have been as many problems as there have been.”
Despite those problems, Pingree said, the law means that millions of people will have access to coverage they could not afford in the past.
“The policies don’t start for another two months at the earliest, so I’m hopeful that the problems can be worked out so even more people can take advantage of that coverage,” she said.
As the problems with the website persist, the phase-in of the mandate that most Americans buy insurance before Feb. 15 or pay a penalty draws near.
Some conservatives have urged the Obama administration to push back the mandate, but the president has resisted that step, which would invite a fresh round of Republican criticism and potentially invite legal action by states.
Hager, with the federal health department, was asked Monday about moving the mandate’s deadline. She said it hasn’t been discussed.
She instead echoed the president’s remarks in his Rose Garden address, saying the administration is doubling its efforts to fix the website. She encouraged advocates to direct applicants to sign up via the federal telephone hotline.
Hager was unable to provide wait times for the hotline, but said the administration is beefing up staffing. It took just under two minutes to reach a representative when a reporter called the hotline Monday.
Maine’s portal to the marketplace – enroll207.com – does not appear to have the same bugs and glitches as the federal website – healthcare.gov. Nonetheless, without specific enrollment data, policymakers said it is impossible to tell how many Mainers even know that insurance, some of it heavily subsidized, is available.
States that have chosen to run their own marketplaces have released some data.
As of Oct. 18, more than 192,000 Americans in 14 states and the District of Columbia had applied for health insurance, according to a compilation of data by the Advisory Board Company, a firm that analyzes health care statistics. That figure provides an incomplete picture because 36 states, including Maine, have let the federal government run their exchanges.
Maine received a federal grant to implement its own exchange, but LePage, backed by the previous Republican Legislature, rejected a state-based exchange.
While Democrats are critical of Republicans’ efforts to derail the health care law, the Obama administration owns the website failure.
The complex federal marketplace cost nearly $400 million to create. According to news reports, contractors who are working on the site say it could take weeks, if not longer, to fix all of the problems.
A software consultant told The New York Times that as many as 5 million lines of software code may have to be rewritten before healthcare.gov runs properly.
Obama acknowledged the problems Monday while defending the law.
“There’s no sugar-coating it,” Obama said. “No one is more frustrated than I am.”
The president said the website issues are not indicative of a failure of the health care law, and he urged opponents not to portray it that way.
“It’s time for folks to stop rooting for its failure, because hardworking, middle-class families are rooting for its success,” he said.
In Maine, advocates for the health care law are frustrated.
Gordon Smith, a lobbyist for the Maine Medical Association, said the website failures are “heartbreaking” for those who fought to expand health insurance.
“We can’t gloss over this,” Smith said.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: