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ACA makes gains in health insurance enrollment

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WASHINGTON — More than 1 million people applied for health insurance in the first week of the new open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, and nearly half chose plans.

The numbers marked a strong relaunch for the government’s online insurance exchange after last year’s botched debut. The 462,000 people who selected plans were triple the number that did so in all of October and November 2013.

“It’s still early and we have a long way to go, but we’re off to a solid start,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said during a conference call with journalists. She added that the government “has a lot of work to do every day between now and February 15,” the close of the three-month enrollment period.

Enrollment was about equally divided between new sign-ups and renewals. The figures did not include sign-ups on state exchanges. HHS said it would provide detailed monthly reports on federal and state ­enrollments.

The Obama administration is hoping for more than 2 million new sign-ups by the end of the enrollment period. The goal is to have at least 9.1 million people covered next year — a much less ambitious target than an earlier Congressional Budget Office projection of 13 million.

To promote the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, HHS announced partnerships with groups including the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) in conjunction with the holiday shopping ­season.

Consumers can get help shopping for an affordable health plan whether they are at a mall, online “or at their community pharmacy,” said Burwell.

Through the NCPA, HHS hosted a call with community pharmacists to provide information on the ACA.

“Community pharmacists are frontline health care providers who serve as a critical access point to care for many Americans,” said NCPA chief executive officer Douglas Hoey. “Community pharmacists will be available to help patients with their health care needs, from medication counseling to accessing insurance coverage … We appreciate Secretary Burwell’s acknowledgment of the contributions of community pharmacists.”

Burwell said the first week’s enrollment numbers excluded people registering for separate dental insurance. Congressional investigators discovered last month that the administration had overstated enrollees for 2014 by about 400,000 by counting dental insurance policyholders in the total of 7.1 million.

“The mistake we made is unacceptable,” Burwell said in a tweet. “I will be communicating that clearly throughout the dept.”

After last year’s disastrous start for HealthCare.gov, the website has been rebuilt to handle as many as 250,000 visitors at a time. The maximum load thus far has been 55,000, according to Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He said the website was never down during the first week, although HHS had twice used the “waiting room” — a kind of digital holding area where consumers are placed while the site gains the bandwidth to handle their applications.

Web traffic is expected to peak around the December 15 deadline for reenrollment and the February 15 end of the open enrollment period.

“We’ll continue to monitor, and as we have bumps along the way we will address them promptly,” Slavitt said.

“We’re deeply focused on these issues,” Burwell said. She noted that the enhanced app that lets people enroll on smartphones or tablets could help with both Latino and youth sign-ups.

The administration said 96,000 people visited Cuidado­DeSalud.gov, the Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov, in the first week, and the enrollment call center drew 102,000 calls from people who opted to speak Spanish. Nearly one-quarter of Hispanics are uninsured, according to the Census Bureau.

The average wait time to talk to a Spanish-speaking representative was 10 seconds, compared to about 3 minutes for the 1 million-plus people overall who dialed into the call center.


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