In the opening days of Obamacare’s October 1 launch, federal officials touted high web-traffic numbers, but repeatedly refused to provide enrollment data for the federally facilitated exchanges.
On October 3, White House spokesperson Jay Carney, pressed for enrollment numbers, said, “No, we don’t have that data.” On October 7, in an appearance on the Daily Show, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius repeated the claim when questioned about enrollment: “I can’t tell you,” she said, “because I don’t know.”
But it simply wasn’t true that federal officials didn't have enrollment numbers—at least not during the first few days.
Leaked meeting notes from high-level war room briefings inside the federal health bureaucracy on October 2 and October 3 report that federal officials were aware of the exact number of federal enrollees on the first and second days in which the exchanges were running.
And, as seemed likely at the time, it turns out that the numbers were very, very low.
According to the notes, which were released to the public by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform and taken from daily briefings at the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, the federal office directly in charge of the exchanges, there were just six successful enrollments across the 36 federal exchanges on launch day.
The second day was a little better. By the morning of October 3, officials reported that the number had reached triple digits on the second day of operation. “As of yesterday, there were 248 enrollments,” it says, with the enrollment figure in bold. Later that same day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters asking for enrollment figures that “we do not have that data.”
It’s possible that Carney didn’t have the numbers at the time. And I suppose it’s even possible that, four days later, HHS Secretary Sebelius hadn’t seen the numbers either. But that explanation is not particularly believable, especially in the case of Sebelius, whose is the nation’s top health bureaucrat and is therefore expected to keep informed of such things. And on the vanishingly small chance that it is true that neither Sebelius nor Carney were at all aware of the enrollment numbers themselves, then that reveals that both remained, perhaps by choice, clueless and out of the loop regarding crucial details about Obamacare’s operations.
HHS has attempted to drum up uncertainty about the figures in the leaked documents. “These appear to be notes, they do not include official enrollment statistics," an HHS spokesperson said in a statement, according to The Washington Post. But while the notes do mention that some insurers didn't get the enrollment forms they were expected to receive, they express no doubts about the specific enrollment numbers presented. Indeed, the notes from the first day's meeting list exactly which insurers have reported successful enrollments.
The more likely explanation here is that Carney and Sebelius simply lied because the enrollment numbers were embarrassingly low.
These early denials came while top administration officials were still suggesting that the problem with the exchanges was too much traffic, and major improvements in the exchanges were right around the corner. They hoped that the exchange problems would be resolved rapidly, and didn’t want to reveal how poorly the launch had gone—which might generate more bad press, and perhaps scare more people away. It’s possible, in other words, that the denials were a result of cluelessness and incompetence—but more plausible that federal officials knowingly lied because it was convenient for their purposes.