Surprise! Obamacare's first 30 days of open enrollment numbers have finally arrived and -- pause for effect -- they are low. Lower than expected and considerably lower than the 500,000 the White House was hoping for. And certainly low enough to strike fear in the hearts of those looking to reach the Congressional Budget Office's projection of getting 7 million into Marketplace plans in the first six-month window.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that health wonks and serious policy experts weren't really surprised. The first 30 days rolling out a historic program of this magnitude, not just in scale but in scope, was never going to be a cakewalk. The rollout of Medicare Part D hit a number of stumbling blocks and never faced the vitriol Obamacare receives. It took years for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to get outreach and enrollment right, and now it's a resounding success with millions of kids and families enrolled.
Putting the Marketplace numbers in context, it's hard to ring the alarm bells just yet. First, even after three-plus years of attacks from the anti-reform lot, Americans are interested and hungry for affordable health insurance. How else can you explain 26 million unique hits to Healthcare.gov and the state Marketplaces already?
Second, the application process is working... just slowly. One and a half million people have completed applications, meaning the Marketplace reviewed their applications and financial information and determined if they were eligible for financial assistance or Medicaid. That's a good thing. On top of that, we've heard from partners in 16 states who are helping to enroll people, many of whom do not speak English, through phone and paper applications and setting up later appointment dates as a workaround.
Lastly, there is still time to fix this. Massachusetts' experience is the most instructive. In the first 30 days alone, the state enrolled only 123 people; far lower in percentage than Obamacare's entry. In the end, up to 99 percent of state residents were insured.
Given the technical difficulties that plagued Healthcare.gov from the start, it's safe to say that we can expect an up-swing as the glitches get fixed. Analysts always expected a surge before the Dec. 15 deadline, the last date to purchase coverage effective by the New Year. As with any mandate, most people will wait until the last minute, so the biggest push will likely come at the end of February and throughout March.
The danger here is what some anti-reform opponents and even supporters are arguing for. Doubling down on political rhetoric and utilizing hearings to showcase phony outrage over a law some have fought tooth and nail against from day one are both bad ideas.
There's no sugarcoating it. Open enrollment has had one bumpy start. But cooler heads must prevail.
Now is the time to focus, make the technical fixes to Healthcare.gov and make the enrollment process as seamless and easy as possible, instead of gleefully relishing every problem in the law.
The millions of Americans who are eligible for affordable insurance in the Marketplace are counting on it. And that's a promise President Obama can keep.
Follow Kathy Ko Chin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KathyKoChin