Health care enrollment: Only 387 in La. sign up

Total enrollment only about one-fifth what Obama administration expected

Only 387 Louisiana residents signed up for health insurance last month through the federal online marketplace created under President Barack Obama’s health care revamp, according to data released Wednesday.

More than 7,700 applications covering about 14,100 people in Louisiana have been completed online.

About 13,600 of those people have been deemed eligible for policies through the Health Insurance Marketplace, but they haven’t yet chosen a coverage plan, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.

The Obama administration says less than 27,000 people across 36 states managed to enroll for health insurance in October using the problem-filled federal website.

The one-month mark isn’t much of a benchmark on which to judge the success of either HealthCare.gov or the Affordable Care Act, according to Brian Burton, director of health promotions for the Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center in Lafayette.

Many people are still shopping, looking at all the plans that are available, Burton said. They have to decide whether it’s better to go with one plan’s deductible and what sort of co-pay they want, among other things.

Then they need to come back and make sure they make their decision by Dec. 15 so they can have insurance in place by Jan. 1.

The Southwest center and three others in the state received a $1.1 million federal grant to do community outreach and education on the federal marketplace. The nonprofit is using the money to do community education and to train some two dozen navigators, who help people learn about the marketplace.

HealthCare.gov has been plagued by technical issues since it opened on Oct. 1. At one point, the federal Department of Health and Human Services had a list of more than 200 fixes that were needed, and the federal government is spending millions to have that work done.

Billy Justice, a spokesman for Vantage Health Plan, of Monroe, said thousands of people have gone to Vantage’s website, vantagehealthplan.com, or called the company for information.

While Vantage can provide the rates for customers, the problem is that there’s only one way for a person to find out the exact amount of subsidy available: by going through HealthCare.gov.

It would help if the website were functioning properly or if Vantage’s independent agents could help consumers sign up, Justice said.

Still, even if HealthCare.gov were working “full-throttle, 100 percent perfect,” the process would still take a lot longer than five minutes.

On Oct. 25, Vantage had 35 enrollees. The number had more than doubled by Wednesday, Justice said.

John Maginnis, a spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, said the company is disappointed and frustrated by HealthCare.gov’s performance.

“Our enrollment number on this federal marketplace at this time is quite small. It’s impossible to give you hard, accurate numbers here, as we’re continually in the process of doing reconciliation and verification,” he said.

Blue Cross is the state’s largest health insurer in Louisiana and covers more than 1.3 million people. About 10 percent of the company’s customers buy individual policies.

Maginnis said the people buying coverage through the federal marketplace are only a tiny portion of the company’s business.

The one bright spot in the individual market is that Blue Cross sold more than 4,000 policies to people who didn’t qualify for subsidies, Maginnis said.

The numbers released Wednesday by federal health officials were lower than estimates recently circulated.

There was one bright spot: States running their own websites did better than the feds, reporting more than 79,000 sign-ups.

Even so, total private insurance enrollment after the first month of the health care rollout was only about one-fifth what the administration had expected during that time period.

The Obama administration had predicted 500,000 people would enroll in October, the first month of the HealthCare.gov rollout. The administration also had projected that by March 31, the end of the open enrollment period, about 7 million people would enroll in the plans offered through the online marketplace.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday that from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2, 106,185 people selected plans from the marketplace; 975,407 others made it through the process but have not selected a plan. More than 396,000 others were deemed eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan.

Louisiana Republicans in Congress were quick to criticize the low enrollment numbers in Louisiana and nationwide.

“The failure of HealthCare.gov was a demonstration of what bureaucrat-run health care looks like,” Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said.

“What we need is not just a revamp of this website, but the repeal and replacement of Obamacare with patient-centered solutions that create affordable health care.”

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, also took aim at the low numbers.

“Americans knew Obamacare was not ready for prime time, and these terribly low enrollment numbers prove it,” Boustany said in a prepared statement.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a staunch supporter of the federal health law, didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to a request about the bleak enrollment numbers.

But the head of the Louisiana Democratic Party, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said she remains confident in the law, calling it desperately needed in a state with high numbers of uninsured residents.

“Our experience talking with Louisianians is that people want to learn more and get covered, and once the website glitches are worked out, we expect the enrollment numbers to grow,” Peterson said in a statement.

The marketplace offers health insurance options for people who are uninsured or who currently pay for individual policies, rather than getting insurance through their jobs.

The federal government is handling the online marketplace for Louisiana because Gov. Bobby Jindal, an opponent of the health law, refused to let the state create its own website.

Enrollment opened on Oct. 1, and people have until March 31 to sign up.

Federal subsidies are available to many low- and middle-income families to help cover costs, with 344,000 Louisiana residents estimated to be eligible for the assistance.

At the same time, most people need to have insurance by mid-February or face fines.

Mark Ballard and Jordan Blum of the Capitol news bureau, Ted Griggs of The Advocate business desk, and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldiver, Laurie Kellman and Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press contributed to this report.