POLITICS
11/12/2013 03:31 pm ET

Frustrated Obamacare Shoppers Asked To Try Again

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Consumers who tried and failed to start shopping for health insurance on HealthCare.gov, Obamacare's troubled web portal, will start receiving invitations this week to try again, a federal official said Tuesday.

Since the botched beginning of a six-month sign-up period on Oct. 1, the number of visitors to HealthCare.gov, which is the source for health coverage enrollment in more than 30 states, has far outstripped the number of people who have been able to actually choose a health plan. People trying to sign up on the site have been met with error messages, and President Barack Obama's administration continues to maintain the website will be functional for most people by the end of this month.

In a sign that the Obama administration is gearing up to bring more consumers into the system, 275,000 users who encountered problems with the first step in applying and enrolling -- creating an account -- will begin receiving messages this week asking them to try again. This first round of email messages will be followed by more efforts to recapture consumers who may have given up on the process while HealthCare.gov remains unreliable, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The administration is sending out these notices in "waves" as they make repairs to the technology behind HealthCare.gov and build capacity, Bataille said. "We want to make sure that we are inviting people back into the system and that their experience will be a positive one," she said.

Earlier Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated the administration's vow that HealthCare.gov would work for most users by the end of the month. Bataille also said the project was on track. "Our plan remains the same. By the end of November, the site will be working for the vast majority of users," she said.

The administration will release initial enrollment figures later this week, in accordance with its plan since the sign-up period started last month. Echoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and other administration officials in recent weeks, Carney predicted the first batch of enrollments would be low.

The administration aims to sign up 800,000 people for private insurance or Medicaid by the end of November, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner told a congressional committee last week. But to do that, the government is relying on the exchanges -- which are run by either states or by the federal government in states that opted not to create their own exchange. In May, the Congressional Budget Office projected that 7 million people will buy private insurance on the exchanges and 9 million more will enroll into Medicaid for 2014.

Citing unnamed sources with access to the government data, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that fewer than 50,000 people signed up for private health insurance via HealthCare.gov as of last week -- one-tenth of internal projection for October. About 139,000 people have enrolled into private insurance in 13 of the 15 state-run exchanges, USA Today reported last week. In 10 state-operated exchanges, 440,000 people have signed up for Medicaid, according to the Associated Press.

The administration insists that low early numbers won't be an indicator of the viability of the health insurance exchanges because enrollment will accelerate. To support that claim, they've cited similar sign-up patterns when the Medicare Part D prescription-drug benefit launched in 2005 and Massachusetts opened its health insurance exchange (the first in the nation) in 2007.

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