WASHINGTON – Obamacare’s inaugural signup period ended Monday as it began, with its troubled national website crashing under a stampede of health insurance shoppers.
For more than an hour, users of healthcare.gov were unable to create new accounts and begin the sign-up process, frustrating Americans who waited until the last minute to arrange for coverage.
Still, the White House seized on the positive: Despite the abysmal rollout of Obamacare six months ago, enrollment was closing in on the original goal of nearly 7 million Americans by the end of March.
“No one expected us to come back from the brink…but we have,” gushed White House spokesman Jay Carney, who projected signups “significantly” above a recent Congressional Budget Office projection 6 million.
Carney brushed off the suggestion Sunday by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that the Obama administration was “cooking the books” on its promising enrollment numbers.
“Well, if we were cooking the books, don’t you think we ought to cook them in October in November? We could have saved ourselves a lot of pain,” Carney said.
Healthcare.gov was created for Americans in 36 states to shop for and purchase health insurance by the end of March, or face fines.
In New York – one of 14 states to operate its own online insurance marketplace, NYStateofHealth.ny.gov – as many as 7,000 people were logged on Monday at the same time, a record, said Donna Frescatore, the program’s executive director.
But the high volume caused only minor delays, health officials said.
“It’s a very, very busy day,” Frescatore told the Daily News.
Since the state website launched on Oct. 1, 826,812 people had signed up for coverage as of 9 a.m. Monday, with 436,304 qualifying for Medicaid and 390,508 obtaining private insurance, she said.
That represented an increase of 109,605 enrollments in a week.
“We’re certainly ahead of the early modeling projections,” Frescatore said, noting the state’s goal was to sign up 1.1 million people by Dec. 31, 2016.
About 70% did not have insurance at the time they signed up, she added.
Leslie Moran, of the New York Health Plan Association, an insurance trade group, said early reports indicate most enrollees were paying their premiums.
Not everyone was happy, however.
Mike Durant, state director of the National Federation Independent Business, said small businesses in New York have, on average, seen health insurance costs rise by 25%.
“I haven’t found a member yet that has seen a decrease in their health care costs,” Durant said.
Frescatore, however, argued it’s difficult to compare costs for small businesses because the market prior to Obamacare was so varied with more than 15,000 insurance plans available.
Health officials have reported that premium rates in the exchange are 53% lower than comparable individual rates a year ago.
Aside from some opening week glitches, New York’s exchange has been operating smoothly and has emerged as one of the bright spots of the trouble-filled rollout of Obamacare.
Despite Monday’s encoraging numbers – in New York and nationally – President Obama’s hallmark domestic program still faces fundamental questions, starting with the age breakdown of enrollees and how many of them have paid or will pay their policy premiums.
Experts believe it could take years to determine whether it achieves its goals of improving access to medical care while moderating costs.
The 2010 law hinges on pulling young, healthy Americans into the insurance market, where their pooled premiums can offset the costs incurred by older and ailing consumers.
“We’re not really going to know whether it worked or not until the third or fourth year,” said Timothy Jost, a professor at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University School of Law. “And of course, that’s two elections down the road.”
As Monday night’s sign-up deadline approached, the political battle over the program raged.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the healthcare law “continues to wreak havoc on American families, small businesses and our economy,” through higher premiums and costs imposed on businesses.
The problem, Boehner said, “was never just about the website – it’s the whole law.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) countered that the law is “liberating families from the fear that an accident or illness will drive them into bankruptcy, as it holds down costs and improves efficiency in our health care system.”
Healthcare.gov buckled under moderate traffic at its launch Oct. 1 and was not fully functional for roughly a month. But after a “tech surge,” the bugs were addrssed.
The recent enrollment surge coincided with an extended White House media blitz that included talk show appearances by Obama and pitches from celebrities, wrapping up Monday with an appearance by Vice President Biden on the “Rachel Ray Show.”
Later Biden visited a Washington, DC, school that serves as an Obamacare enrollment center.
“Everybody is going to be better off for it. You are going to be better off for it. The country is going to be better off for it,” Biden said.
The law targeted the nation’s uninsured, estimated last year to number 48 million.
Last week, the Obama Administration announced that consumers who began enrollment before the deadline’s arrival – but could not complete the process – would be able to finish signing up even after the deadline passed.
Its next annual open enrollment period is scheduled to run from Nov. 15 of this year until Jan. 15, 2015.
With News wire services