White House Overhypes Obamacare Enrollment, Again



Yesterday evening, not long after the official (but not actual) end of Obamacare's open enrollment period, the White House Twitter feed posted some breaking news: "About 11.4 million Americans are signed up for private health coverage," the tweet said, posting the information with the hashtag #ACAWorks.

It is in some ways remarkable that the White House can provide this information so quickly. Not because the information should be hard to collect, but because other similar information often eludes the administration.

As Bloomberg News health care reporter Alex Wayne noted on Twitter earlier today during a Q&A session with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the administration "still can't tell us how many people were enrolled in Obamacare at the end of 2014."

Perhaps this is just caution given that in congressional testimony Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner inadvertently over-reported enrollment by about 400,000 last year, counting a large group of dental plans that should not have been included in the total.

But it follows a familiar pattern. When the news looks good, it comes out quickly and is said to exceed expectations. Thus when it fails to come out, one suspects it does not look quite so good.

We saw this last year, when the administration bragged of 8 million enrollments—a full million above the Congressional Budget Office's original expectations, and double that over the CBO's revised estimates after the website crashed. Eventually, the administration indicated that the number was closer to 7 million. Then, minus the dental plans, even less.

In any case, the Obamacare sign-up numbers the White House is now touting are also less impressive than advertised. After noting the sign-up numbers in a video, President Obama said that the law is "working a little bit better than we anticipated."

But not all of the sign-ups will end up paying for insurance throughout the year. As The Manhattan Institute's Avik Roy writes at Forbes, only about 84 percent of sign-ups are likely to translate into paid coverage. That drops the total down to about 9.5 million—still within the 9-10 million enrollment target range set by the administration last November. But that target, when it was announced, represented a significant scaling back of the Congressional Budget Office's initial estimates for second-year enrollment. To the extent that the law exceeded White House expectations, it's only because the administration previously adjusted them downward.

Overall enrollment in private exchange plans slowed significantly this round, as Roy notes. The totals provided for the White House include those renewing coverage they obtained during the first open enrollment period last year—somewhere shy of 7 million, now that dental plans have been excluded. Depending on how the exact totals work out, then, it appears as if the health law added roughly half as many new enrollees this time out. The CBO last April projected that enrollment would almost double, from about 7 million to about 13 million.

This performance may exceed the White House's expectations, but by other measures it is underwhelming.