During Obamacare’s inaugural enrollment period — spanning the last quarter of 2013 and the first of 2014 — the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) employed a selective approach to releasing key data about activity on HealthCare.gov. In those early, miserable and dysfunctional days of the government’s health-care insurance sign-up portal, “We don’t plan to do hourly or daily data releases but anticipate sharing updates at regular intervals,” an HHS spokeswoman said last fall. “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.”
Once HealthCare.gov started rocking in the early months of 2014, HHS eased up a bit, blasting out releases on key mileposts as they reached them. In February and March, enrollment hit 4 million and 5 million, respectively, and HHS saw no need to wait weeks to tell the public. (The number stood at 7.1 million as of mid-October)
On Saturday, a new and shorter Obamacare enrollment period started up. With a far more smoothly running HealthCare.gov in place, HHS parted with some useful benchmarks. As reported here, for example, 500,000 managed to log on to HealthCare.gov and 100,000 submitted applications on Saturday alone. Now consider October 2013: The government boasted that it had counted 4.7 million unique visitors in the first day alone, a measure of the level of public interest in HealthCare.gov.
Yet it took an investigative effort to pry out the embarrassing, and far more significant, enrollment numbers. On account of Healthcare.gov’s JV technology, very few people were able to use it when it launched, and HHS officials said that enrollment figures wouldn’t even be ready until mid-November 2013. Former CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson writes in her book “Stonewalled” that she snared a tip in late October that only six people had enrolled on Healthcare.gov’s first day. After she called HHS to inquire about their numbers, a boomerang dynamic took place: A White House press officer called her producer to complain about the pending story. The official wanted to know what CBS News knew, and the producer protested: “Why would we discuss details of our reporting with them when they insist no enrollment figures exist?” writes Attkisson.
Enrollment numbers remain scarce these days, even with a more functional HealthCare.gov. An HHS source says that “it takes a longer time to aggregate” enrollment figures.
Jeffrey Young, a health-care reporter for the Huffington Post, wonders just how difficult it would be to pry real-time enrollment data from the system. Under the management of Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell — who took over from Kathleen Sebelius in June — HHS has stepped up transparency, including access to the secretary herself, says Young in an e-mail.
As for those 100,000 applications submitted in one day, notes Young, they represent strong interest in the product. That said:
What they didn’t say was how many people got all the way to the end of the process and actually selected an insurance plan. That number is certainly much lower than 100,000. Now, that’s not in itself a problem: people tend to mull these decisions over and return to the site multiple times before enrolling, and there’s still a month before anyone has to choose an insurance policy that will be in place on Jan. 1., and nearly three months until this is all over for the year. But I have to assume that if tens of thousands of people had done so this weekend, they’d tell us, because that would make them look good.
HHS spokesman Kevin Griffis declined to answer that sentiment from Young. Instead, he tells the Erik Wemple Blog that early numbers released to the public reinforce some key messages: “We’re ready: 23K applications submitted in the first eight hours. People are ready to get covered: 1.2 million people who window-shopped in the first week. We’re here to help: 200K+ calls to the call center over the weekend,” notes Griffis in an e-mail.
Since this year’s open enrollment started on Saturday, HHS has provided various figures — generally of the self-serving variety — as reflected in the official Twitter account of HHS Secretary Burwell. For example:
Those disclosures are fine as far as they go. But Bloomberg health-care reporter Alex Wayne suggests that the data release follow a more systematic format:
Why can’t the feds act more like these states? We posed that question to HHS and are awaiting an on-the-record answer.
UPDATE 8:30 p.m.: Here’s the response from HHS. “We have put out daily numbers since the start of Open Enrollment to show that the site is ready for people to come back and shop for the coverage that meets their needs, and we will continue to put out information in a timely way. But the measure of the website and the Affordable Care Act isn’t a list of daily Internet numbers, it’s the success we have in reducing the number of uninsured, and by that metric, the law has made a huge difference in millions of lives.”