Some 5 million Americans have signed up for health coverage on the new insurance exchanges so far, the Obama administration said Monday.
Though enrollment has surged by about 800,000 since the end of February, the administration’s latest figure is not a clear estimate of how many people have actually gained coverage through the exchanges since it doesn’t include who has paid for their plans.
Last week, Politico reported that four of the country’s largest insurance companies said about 20 percent of people who signed up for Obamacare had not paid their first months premiums—meaning they should not be counted in the total enrollment numbers.
If this is correct, actual enrollment would be around 4 million, or 3 million shy of the White House’s original goal of signing up 7 million people this year.
The latest figures come two weeks before the March 31 deadline to sign up for health coverage through the exchanges. Under the law’s individual mandate, Americans who don’t have health insurance by April 1 will be subject to a penalty of 1 percent of their annual income, unless they apply for a hardship exemption.
People can qualify for the exemption if they are experiencing a financial hardship that could make it difficult to obtain health coverage. The administration announced an extension of the exemption through 2016 last week. Critics say it could make it easier for people to skirt around the new requirement, and it can also make people less likely to get coverage.
Though they are still far from reaching their enrollment projections, administration officials are touting the numbers as a success, and say they are confident that sign ups will continue to surge ahead of the open enrollment deadline.
"The last several days have been the busiest since December, with the Call Center taking more than 198,000 calls on Thursday alone -- the busiest day since December 23 -- and more than 130,000 calls over the weekend,” Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner said in a blog published Monday.
Another important question the figures do not answer is how many of the new enrollees previously lacked health coverage. This is important since a key goal of the healthcare reform law was to extend access to coverage for the millions of uninsured Americans. One independent study by McKinsey found that just 27 percent of total enrollment through February were previously uninsured.
If this is accurate, the majority of people signing up for Obamacare either had an employer plan previously and were kicked off, or they found a better deal on the exchanges.
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