U.S. President Barack Obama returns via the Marine One helicopter from a visit in Florida to the White House in Washington November 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters
A tiny fraction of the hoped-for millions have signed up for insurance under President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, the government said on Wednesday, highlighting the scale of problems bedeviling Obama's biggest domestic policy achievement.
While the low figure of 106,000 enrollments was expected because of website technical failures, they showed how far the White House has to go to build a new individual market of millions of consumers in 2014 to keep the healthcare program financially viable.
Indeed, Obama's top technology officer on Wednesday stopped short of promising that the website would be fixed by the end of the month, a deadline set by the administration.
"The team is working really hard to hit that goal and that's what I'm able to say right now," Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer at the White House, told a congressional oversight hearing.
Obama's fellow Democrats are demanding that the White House swiftly help people whose existing insurance policies have been canceled because of higher standards under the healthcare law and to fix the program's broken website by the end of the month.
House Democrats are concerned that the botched rollout could become a political liability for the party during the 2014 mid-term elections. On Thursday, White House officials will meet with Democratic senators, who also want the White House to regain the upper hand on the policy known as Obamacare.
The President had repeatedly promised that Americans who liked their health insurance could keep it when the law took effect on October 1, but several million people have received cancellation notices.
Fewer than 27,000 people signed up for private health insurance plans through the federal marketplace in October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said. About 79,391 signed up through state-based exchanges.
One positive figure came from California, which embraced the healthcare reform policy early on and is considered one of the most crucial states for the enrollment effort. The state-run marketplace reported that it has seen more than 59,000 individuals select health insurance plans from October 1 through Tuesday.
The pace of sign-ups has picked up in California in November -- 29,000 have selected plans this month, already nearing the total of 30,830 reported in October.
The national enrollment figure for private plans amounts to 1.5 percent of a forecast 7 million people who were expected to sign up by the time enrollment wraps up at the end of March.
"The marketplace is working. People are enrolling," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius insisted, blaming the website woes for the low numbers.
The Obama administration had said it expected a trickle of enrollments in October because of the error-ridden HealthCare.gov website used for signing people up in 36 states.
The government said 396,261 people were deemed eligible for the government's Medicaid program or the Children's Health Insurance Program for the poor.
Caroline Pearson, vice president at research and consultancy firm Avalere Health, said the low number of sign-ups in private plans could force the government to extend the enrollment period.
"You've effectively shortened the open enrollment period, and I think this could lead to them lengthening the enrollment period on the back end," Pearson said.
So far, the administration has resisted calls for a longer enrollment period than established under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
POLL: HURTS DEMOCRATS
Although Obamacare's problems have created the greatest crisis of Obama's presidency, Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking polls suggest that his approval rating, while at a low point, has not declined significantly since the rollout began.
Obama's approval rating was at 40.5 percent on Wednesday, the tracking polls indicated, while 52 percent of Americans disapproved of the job he is doing - figures that are essentially unchanged from October 1.
It has become clear, however, that the debacle has damaged Americans' confidence that Democrats have the better plan on healthcare. A year ago, when Obama was elected to his second four-year term, nearly 43 percent of Americans said that Democrats had the better plan on healthcare, while 27 percent said Republicans did.
This week, only 31 percent of Americans favored Democrats on healthcare. But Obamacare's problems also seem to have dimmed Americans' support of Republicans on the issue: Just 17.4 percent now see Republicans as better on healthcare.
Nearly 1 million people have successfully checked whether they are eligible for government subsidies toward the new insurance, but have not selected a plan, officials said.
The sign-up figures reflect people who have picked a new insurance plan but may not have paid their premiums yet. Sebelius said enrollment should grow substantially over the next few months as the website improves.