WASHINGTON — Fewer than 300 Maine residents signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act in the first month, according to figures released Wednesday, reflecting low enrollment nationwide through the federal government’s faulty website.
From Oct. 1 through Nov. 2, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received 3,550 applications for health insurance covering 6,497 Maine residents. But just 271 individuals made it far enough through the process to select insurance plans, the department reported.
That’s a tiny fraction of the 65,000 to 104,000 Mainers that the Maine Bureau of Insurance has estimated will sign up for coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace by 2014.
Federal officials had warned that enrollment would fall well short of expectations, largely because of technical problems with HealthCare.gov, the website that is supposed to serve residents of 36 states, including Maine.
The figures released Wednesday by the White House proved them right.
Nationwide, 106,185 people selected health insurance plans, well shy of the 500,000 that Obama administration officials had projected would enroll in the first month. Most of those people live in the 14 states that created their own online marketplaces rather than use the federal system.
In the other 36 states, just 26,794 people got all the way through the selection process in HealthCare.gov’s first month.
Making matters worse for the Affordable Care Act’s supporters in Congress were revelations that millions of people may learn that they cannot keep their current insurance policies despite President Obama’s earlier assurances that those who liked their coverage could keep it. A growing number of Democrats are calling for a legislative fix.
Faced with an increasingly anxious Democratic caucus, federal officials noted that interest in the insurance marketplaces is high despite the rocky rollout of the website. Across the country, the state and federal marketplaces received 840,000 applications seeking coverage for more than 1.5 million people.
The vast majority of the 1.1 million people deemed eligible for the insurance are likely taking their time and “shopping around” for plans, officials said.
“There is no doubt the level of interest is strong,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months.”
Reactions from Maine’s congressional delegation varied.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who voted against the law, called on Congress to “start over.”
“The numbers released today clearly demonstrate that the problems with Obamacare go far beyond a website that does not work,” Collins said in a prepared statement. “All across our state, Mainers are telling me that they’re now facing huge premium increases that will have a devastating impact on their families and small businesses.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who strongly supports the law, suggested that the numbers will improve.
“It’s not really surprising the enrollment numbers aren’t higher, given how early it is in the process and how serious the problems with the website have been,” she said in a prepared statement. “But it’s clear that there is interest in getting affordable coverage through the exchanges and I’m pretty sure the enrollment numbers will increase dramatically when the website is fully functional and we get closer to the date when the insurance coverage actually begins.”
Enrollment figures varied widely by state.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, like other governors who opposed the federal health care law, opted to let the federal government set up the online marketplace for Mainers.
The 271 individuals who selected plans in Maine represented about 5 percent of the applicants who were deemed eligible for coverage during the application process. Other states that are relying on the federal website also had enrollment percentages in the low single digits.
By contrast, 36 percent of the eligible applicants in Connecticut got through the process to select insurance plans through that state-run exchange. In Vermont, another state that’s operating its own exchange, that figure was 40 percent.
The enrollment numbers released Wednesday also include evidence that the problems with the website have hindered Mainers’ attempts to enroll in Medicaid, the publicly funded health insurance program for low-income Americans.
According to the enrollment data, 623 Mainers who accessed the federal marketplace were deemed eligible for Medicaid.
People who find out that they’re eligible for Medicaid while shopping on HealthCare.gov are supposed to be directed to their state governments, which administer the program and have varying eligibility guidelines. But the federal government hasn’t been able to transfer any information from those applications to state Medicaid programs.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesman John Martins said Wednesday that federal officials have yet to pass along any complete files that would enable the state to determine who qualifies.
“Essentially, we are not getting the data that would allow us to take action,” Martins said.
Nearly 78 percent of the individuals included in the applications filed in Maine were deemed eligible for the health insurance program. More than 2,000 of those eligible individuals – 42 percent – were also deemed eligible for federal subsidies to help pay their insurance premiums.
Political tension over the Affordable Care Act has escalated on Capitol Hill despite the White House’s assurances that the website has improved markedly since Oct. 1.
The New York Times reported that some House Democrats warned White House officials Wednesday that they must come up with an alternative or the Democrats may support a Republican bill to allow individuals to keep their insurance for as long as one year. Senate Democrats will meet with White House officials Thursday.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced legislation Wednesday to extend the sign-up period for health insurance. The deadline is now March 31. And Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine reiterated his support for an extension in light of the website’s problems.
“While I know the administration is working hard to fix these problems, I continue to believe that the enrollment period must be extended and that it must take into account the failures of the website,” Michaud said.
Republicans, meanwhile, seized on the problems and the low enrollment numbers to decry what they see as a fatally flawed law.
“We think the thing ought to be repealed and replaced entirely,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., before the release of the enrollment figures. “We think it can’t possibly work.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at: