Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' shadow appeared behind the lectern as she about the implementation of the federal health law in Detroit in November.
Enrollment in California’s state-run health insurance marketplace continued to accelerate in the last part of November, according to data released Wednesday by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. As of Nov. 30, more than 107,000 people had signed up for an insurance plan on Covered California – a rate of more than 2,600 a day between Nov. 12-30. About 2,000 a day had signed up between Nov. 1-12. Numbers on the federal HealthCare.gov website also picked up, although the total still lags behind original forecasts.
Of the more than 384,000 people determined eligible to enroll in a Covered California plan as of Nov. 30, the agency determined that more than 158,000 were eligible for some level of federal financial assistance. It did not have a breakdown of this number for the period ending Nov. 12.
Covered California determined that nearly 182,000 people were eligible for Medi-Cal as of the end of November, a jump of about 100,000 from the last reporting period ending Nov. 12.
HHS added one caveat about the California numbers: there was double counting on two days (Nov. 1 and 2), but a Covered California official predicted the statistics would not change significantly once the state adjusts its tally.
The numbers will be clarified when Covered California releases its official enrollment numbers on Thursday, said spokesman James Scullary. "In terms of what I’ve seen, there’s not a marked difference," he said.
Scullary said the agency is "really excited about the momentum we’re seeing," saying "it bodes well for the coming weeks."
In another indication of stepped up interest, the number of people phoning call centers for help with buying insurance through the state marketplace jumped markedly in the week of Dec. 1-7, according to Covered California.
Nearly 144,000 people placed calls that week, compared with just under 63,000 the week of Nov. 24-30. The time it takes to get a call answered has been going up as well; the average wait was 25 minutes the week of Nov. 24-30; it jumped to 36 minutes Dec. 1-7.
Covered California estimates there are 5.3 million Californians eligible to purchase health insurance plans underthe Affordable Care Act. Of those, it estimates there are 2.6 million who are eligible for federal premium assistance and cost-sharing subsidies.
Covered California has no unsubsidized enrollment forecast until Jan. 2015, at which point it forecasts having enrolled about 1.7 million people.
Covered California forecasts subsidized enrollment by April 2014 being between 487,000 and 696,000.
The new state numbers come as enrollment on the federal government's insurance exchange also picked up sharply in November. Still, the number of people signing up for coverage nationally trails original forecasts. Officials from the Obama administration say they expect the pace of enrollments will continue to increase, now that the insurance website is working more smoothly.
People have until Dec. 23 to sign up for coverage that begins on January 1.
As of Nov. 30, more than 137,000 people had obtained health insurance through the federal website, which serves consumers in 36 states. Another 227,000 got coverage through exchanges run by the other 14 states and the District of Columbia. The numbers suggest a fourfold increase in November enrollments on the federal website, compared to October, when the site was barely functioning. The pace of enrollment on the state sites roughly doubled.
Traffic on the insurance exchanges has continued to grow, after technical fixes were made to the website during the month of November. In the first two days of this week, more than 800,000 people visited the federal website.
"The HealthCare.gov website is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1," says Michael Hash, who directs the Office of Health Reform at the Department of Health and Human Services. "The majority of users are now able to move smoothly through the application process, and it's now easier than ever to shop for and compare plans and to enroll in coverage."
The early technical problems have taken a toll, though. The administration originally hoped to have 500,000 people enrolling in coverage in October alone. As it is, there were only about 365,000 enrolled by the end of November.
What's more, there are continuing problems with the website's "back-end," which is supposed to share enrollment information with insurance companies. As recently as last week, one in 10 enrollment notices contained an error.
Despite those problems, Hash says the administration is "on track" to meet its target of signing up 7 million insurance customers by the end of March, when the enrollment period ends.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is sure to be asked about the enrollment challenges when she testifies Wednesday before a House subcommittee.
This story has been updated.