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HHS, playing selective with Obamacare enrollment numbers

The federal Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) scored on Monday with a cheery press release on Obamacare. “Marketplace Enrollment Hits 5 Million Milestone,” noted the release, which opened with this line: “As this historic open enrollment period enters its final weeks, millions of Americans are finding quality, affordable coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

Politico, Washington Post, Associated Press/Huffington Post, The Hill, Time, the Los Angeles Times, Ed Schultz! — they all trafficked in the announcement. Who didn’t?

The HHS announcement had an improvisational, ad hoc feel to it. Unlike the more comprehensive monthly Obamacare reports, it was more of an update, a celebration of a key milestone in the drive to promote Obamacare. Not unlike the Feb. 25 press release — also popular with the media — that announced enrollment had hit 4 million.

In other words, precisely the sort of incremental disclosures that HHS officials months ago said they wouldn’t be providing. Last October, when, the vehicle for Obamacare enrollment, was misfiring, reporters hungered for enrollment numbers. HHS wasn’t disclosing them, insisting instead upon a rigid and periodic approach to the numbers. Here’s how the department defended its policy:

“As with other programs (e.g., Medicare Advantage), HHS plans on issuing regular updates on implementation, including enrollment statistics. We don’t plan to do hourly or daily data releases but anticipate sharing updates at regular intervals. It will likely be released in the middle of the following month to ensure accuracy. HHS needs to coordinate enrollment from different sources (paper, on-line, call centers), verify with insurers, and collect data from states. We are focused on providing accurate information.”

HHS did have a big, strapping justification for playing hard-to-get with the data last October. Massive back-end technical problems hindered compilation of the data, a problem that the media covered at the time. In any case, the Erik Wemple Blog asked HHS why it has adopted a more flexible approach to releasing numbers when those numbers are positive. Spokeswoman Joanne Peters responded:

“We release detailed enrollment data on a monthly basis, similar to other government programs such as Medicare Advantage. Our top priority is in releasing accurate data, which we can do once we have compiled information from the states, verified with issuers and scrubbed the data. From time to time, we may announce when we have crossed certain milestones in enrollment, but we will continue to release formal enrollment reports on a monthly basis to ensure accuracy.”

Health-care beat reporters aren’t swayed. One of them noted to the Erik Wemple Blog, “They say all the time they don’t have numbers when reporters (like me) ask them directly, but when they hit a milestone, they’re quick to push that information out.”

And another recently tweeted:

UPDATE 4:40 p.m.: Politico’s Kyle Cheney tweets to the Erik Wemple Blog that an article of his had raised issues about HHS’s release of data.