The last few times that the Obama administration has released a new Obamacare enrollment report or announced a new enrollment milestone, a familiar chorus has come up from the right: Those numbers aren’t quite right.
It happened again Thursday when the White House proclaimed six million people had signed up for private coverage under the law.
The origin of the criticsm is based in very legitimate questions about the numbers: How many of those people paid their first premium, formally initiating their new coverage? How many were previously uninsured, rather than previously insured people who just moved over to a new plan?
But those are questions the Obama administration says it isn’t able to answer yet. Premiums are paid directly to the insurance companies, and the administration says it doesn’t yet have accurate information about how many people have paid them. The online application on HealthCare.gov doesn’t include a question about an applicant’s prior insurance status, which makes that metric difficult to track.
Maybe the administration is withholding information. It hasn’t always been forthcoming with negative Obamacare news, while quickly touting the good stuff. But if these really are questions that enrollment reports don’t have a way to address yet, as the administration says, why do those on the right routinely trot them out whenever a new number is released?
Probably because they help delegitimize the enrollment figure. Six million certainly sounds like a lot of people who have been helped by the law that Republicans labored for years to align themselves against. While conservatives figure out how to confront a new reality in which a significant number of people are benefitting from Obamacare, calling the official statistics into question might buy them a little time.
To wit, here’s how Thursday’s announcement has been portrayed by conservative outlets, officials and thinkers.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), a top Obamacare critic on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Newsmax:
Falling one million short of the proclaimed goal is nothing to celebrate — not to mention the White House still refuses to disclose the most important figure of who’s paid.
As the administration scrambles to conceal its incompetence, millions of Americans are now enduring cancelled health plans, higher premiums, and lost access to trusted doctors.
The numbers that HHS is handing out here almost certainly overstate the actual number of enrollees by hundreds of thousands (or even a million or more) people. Show of hands: If all of the withheld data was actually good news for the White House — a healthy risk pool, 99+ percent payment, few bogus “shopping cart” sign-ups — who thinks Sebelius wouldn’t be extremely eager to let you know that?
From Fox News:
Like much else about Obama’s health care law, it comes with a caveat: The administration has yet to announce how many consumers actually closed the deal by paying their first month’s premium. Some independent estimates are that as many as 10 percent to 20 percent have not paid, which would bring the total enrollment to between 5 million and 6 million people.
The administration also has not said how many of the new sign-ups were previously uninsured.
From Forbes’ Avik Roy:
Sign-ups ≠ enrollment ≠ impact on uninsured
One thing that’s important to clear up. A number of journalists are running around equating the White House’s 6 million figure with 6 million enrollments. If you read these pages regularly, you know this, but to reiterate: just because someone has signed up for coverage doesn’t mean someone has coverage. In order to be formally enrolled in coverage, you have to pay the first month’s premium.
From National Review Online, under the banner “Six Million Obamacare Enrollees (Or 5, Whatever):
But it’s not really as close as HHS is claiming: 6 million people haven’t enrolled in the sense of committing to buy a plan and paying for it — 6 million have selected a plan on the federal or state exchange they’re using.
From various congressional GOP press folks:
If the administration is so proud of themselves today, why not release complete, full and transparent enrollment information?
— Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) March 27, 2014
— Stew (@StewSays) March 27, 2014
It’s also important to remember that almost every news outlet — liberal, conservative and mainstream — includes those caveats when reporting the administration’s latest boast. Informed readers should already understand what is being reported. And many outlets, including TPM, have tried to answer these questions.
Independent research has suggested that the percentage of private enrollees who were previously uninsured is relatively low. But many of the previously uninsured are likely eligible for Medicaid expansion, which is not factored into the six million figure, potentially adding millions to Obamacare’s enrollment. Gallup polling has shown a drop in the number of uninsured. Insurance companies have reported that a certain percentage of enrollees have not paid their first premium, but the estimates range from a full 20 percent to more like 5 percent.
One could even argue that Obamacare enrollment is being underestimated. As National Journal reported Friday, an unknown number of people have signed up for coverage directly through their insurer and aren’t accounted for in the figures reported by the administration.
All of these questions will eventually be answered, and those answers are important for evaluating Obamacare’s success. But, as TPM reported, enrollment data alone don’t provide the full picture, anyway. These are arguably secondary questions in understanding how the law is working right now.
What isn’t up for debate is that millions of Americans, nearly as many as independent analyses thought would before the Oct. 1 launch, have signed onto Obamacare in the last six months. That throws a wrench in the political posturing of a party that has spent the last four years warning what a disaster it would be.