Health market surpasses 1 million signups


HONOLULU — A December surge propelled health care sign-ups through the government’s rehabilitated website past the 1 million mark, the Obama administration said Sunday, reflecting new vigor for the problem-plagued federal insurance exchange.

Of the more than 1.1 million people now enrolled, nearly 1 million signed up in December, with the majority coming days before a pre-Christmas deadline for coverage to start in January. Compare that to a paltry 27,000 in October —the website’s first, error-prone month — or 137,000 in November.

The figures tell only part of the story. The administration has yet to provide a December update on the 14 states running their own exchanges, as the new online insurance markets are called. While California, New York, Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut have performed well, some are struggling.

Still, the end-of-year spike suggests that with HealthCare.Gov now functioning better, the federal market serving 36 states may be starting to pull its weight. The windfall comes at a critical moment for President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care law, which becomes “real” for many Americans on Jan. 1 as coverage through the exchanges and key patient protections kick in.

“We experienced a welcome surge in enrollment as millions of Americans seek access to affordable health care coverage,” Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a blog post.

The fledgling insurance markets are still likely to fall short of the administration’s own targets for 2013. That’s a concern because Obama needs millions of mostly younger, healthy Americans to sign up to keep costs low for everyone. Officials had projected more than 3.3 million overall would be enrolled through federal and state exchanges by the end of the year.

Tavenner said fixes to the website, which underwent a major overhaul to address widespread outages and glitches, contributed to December’s figures. But the problems haven’t totally disappeared. Thousands of people wound up waiting on hold for telephone help on Christmas Eve for a multitude of reasons, including technical difficulties.

“We have been a little bit behind the curve,” acknowledged Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, whose state has the highest proportion of uninsured residents. Nonetheless, the strong December sign-ups send a message. “The Affordable Care Act is something that’s good for the country,” said Castro.