Interest in Exchange Running High, but Enrollment a Fraction of Stated Goals

by David Gorn

TOPIC ALERT:

Covered California officials yesterday released enrollment numbers for the first month, which indicate high interest in the exchange but a low number of actual enrollees at the start of the first open enrollment period.

Yesterday's enrollment numbers for the month of October, according to the exchange:

  • 30,830 Californians enrolled in the exchange;
  • 2.5 million unique visits;
  • About 250,000 calls were handled in the exchange's three call centers, with an average call length of about 15 minutes; and
  • 85,960 Californians ruled eligible for coverage through the exchange.

Exchange officials predicted October would be a slow month for enrollment and that enrollment would increase as the Dec. 15 deadline to sign up for the exchange in time to receive coverage on Jan. 1, 2014 draws closer.

That was reflected in the written comments from Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California:

"The numbers are better than encouraging," Lee said in a statement. "They show momentum and very high consumer interest. As anticipated, consumers spent October comparing plans and educating themselves about their health care options…"

But those numbers are a far cry from the exchange's enrollment expectations for the first six-month enrollment period, which ends Apr. 1.

"Our goal is to have 500,000 to 700,000 subsidy-eligible Californians enrolled in the exchange by April 1," Lee said at an exchange board meeting in September.

Of the 30,830 Californians who enrolled in the exchange in October, only 4,852 were subsidy-eligible.

That leaves a pretty steep enrollment curve ahead for the exchange -- an average of about 100,000 enrollees signing up each month to reach the low end of the exchange's goal.

It's not impossible, according to Carmella Gutierrez, president of Californians for Patient Care. In fact, she said, there's no way to know what any of the numbers will be just a single month into the enrollment period.

"While these initial numbers fall short of enrollment goals, they are not surprising," Gutierrez said. "Many Californians are looking under the hood and kicking the tires before they make such an important decision for their families."

Once the enrollment machine starts really rolling, these opening numbers won't mean a thing, she said.

"We're just a month into it," Gutierrez said. "It's hard to speak to the estimations that Covered California gave out, because they're estimations. That may not happen. You estimate, and then you get into it. And you see that the challenge and the enormity of the task is what's realistic here."

Gutierrez said there are three important words to remember:

"Health care is complicated," she said. "People have a hard time grasping the health care system in California. Trying to redirect this many people takes a lot of hand-holding and a lot of time. People need time to think about it.

Exchange officials have suggested that people will wait until just before the Dec. 15 deadline to enroll, but Gutierrez said she thinks the bulk of the enrollment won't come until near the end of the first open enrollment period.

"We are confident that the number of enrollees will steadily increase through [the end of] March 2014," Gutierrez said.


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