Gets 222,000 New Sign-Ups in First Week

Health Secretary Calls Number a ‘Solid Start’ for Sign-Up Period, which opened for its second enrollment period Nov. 15, has gotten off to a far better start than last year, figures show.

About 222,000 people made new sign-ups for insurance in the site’s first week of selling health coverage for 2015, while some 240,000 people renewed plans they bought on the federal insurance exchange last year, administration officials said Wednesday.

Technical problems plagued the site at its launch last year and only about 106,000 people were able to sign up in its first month of operation, which tarnished President Barack Obama ’s signature health-care law.

But the latest numbers also signal steep challenges ahead as the government tries to meet enrollment goals. Federal officials said Wednesday they are continuing to encourage millions of people to come back to the site to review their coverage and make any changes—while ensuring the site’s technical side can handle the heavy traffic.

The deadline for signing up for coverage is Feb. 15, but current policyholders have only until Dec. 15 to make changes to their coverage for the new year.

If those policyholders don’t come back to to see the latest offerings, the government automatically will renew their existing plans.

“We’re now one week into open enrollment, and we’re off to a solid start,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. “It’s still early, and we have a long way to go.”, set up under the 2010 health-care overhaul...

serves 37 states that were unable or unwilling to set up their own exchanges. Picking a plan is the final step on the website to obtain insurance. Consumers who picked a plan still have to pay their first month’s premium to their insurance carrier before they have coverage.

HHS also reported that the site had about 3.7 million visitors in the first week, with about 1.6 million using the window-shopping tool to browse plan prices.

HHS had come under criticism for not releasing detailed sign-up numbers for the law’s first enrollment period, or for the first few days of the latest round, especially since some states running their own exchanges already have done so.

Federal officials also made an embarrassing disclosure last week...

saying that 6.7 million people had paid for coverage through mid-October—not the 7.1 million it had earlier said. Ms. Burwell said her agency planned to release weekly reports on enrollment numbers going forward and that she was determined to find out what had gone wrong in earlier numbers.

As many as five million people picked plans through last year. Prices for many popular plans have increased, at the same time an influx of lower-priced plans could decrease the value of tax credits people get to offset their premiums.

Officials are banking on more people coming back to the site closer to the deadline for making changes to coverage...

raising the prospect of a crush of users on the site in the next 2½ weeks. Insurers will also have to sift through information they get from the site to make changes to people’s coverage in the days between Dec. 16 and New Year’s Day.

Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the HHS unit in charge of implementing the law, said Wednesday that the site had been built to withstand 250,000 concurrent users, with additional capacity that could be deployed. He said officials had made a conservative guess that up to four million out of the five million people would come back to the site.

The federal government is also working toward a back-end fix that would send insurers updates when their enrollees switch to plans offered by rivals, according to two insurance industry officials. That would reduce the risk that a person who bought a plan on the exchange for 2014 and switched to a different insurer for 2015 could end up enrolled in two plans, with bills for both, in January—a scenario that insurers feared would play out if they weren’t told about plan-switchers. Another industry official cautioned that it was too soon to know how any new solution would work.

At the same time it is juggling people renewing coverage, the Obama administration is aiming to increase the number of people who gain insurance through the health exchanges across the country.

Ms. Burwell has said she expects to see that number grow to nine million next year. Her target is significantly lower than a previous projection by the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated 13 million people would use the exchanges to have health plans for 2015.

HHS officials said Wednesday they had reached agreements with Westfield Shopping Centers, the trade association representing community pharmacists and the XO Group Inc., parent company of The Knot, The Nest and The Bump websites, to promote the law.

—Anna Wilde Mathews contributed to this article.

Source: Gets 222,000 New Sign-Ups in First Week

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