Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan: More People Sign Up, But Enrollment Still Low

WASHINGTON -- Enrollment in the Affordable Care Act's fledgling program for people with pre-existing conditions inched up to 18,313 in March, the Obama administration recently announced.

The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, a $5 billion component of the president's health care reform bill, offers low-cost coverage to people who've spent six months or longer excluded from the individual insurance market because of conditions like diabetes, heart disease or cancer. The federal government runs the PCIP in 23 states, while the rest of the states handle it themselves.

Enrollment jumped by nearly 6,000 from the previous update in February -- the biggest increase yet. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers the program, lowered premiums earlier this year in an effort to boost enrollment.

For those covered by the PCIP, it can be a godsend. The program was so appealing to one Arizona couple, in fact, that they canceled their insurance policies in January and are spending six months without insurance to qualify for the program come July.

Yet the PCIP's enrollment numbers have been a disappointment for the administration. Though there are millions eligible, officials said it would reach a few hundred thousand at most. Enrollment has fallen far short of even those meager estimates.

During the legislative endgame of health care reform, Democrats touted the new program as one of the greatest "immediate deliverables" of the pending law. (High-risk pools like the PCIP also happen to be the centerpiece of Republicans' alternative vision for health care reform).

The PCIP will be phased out in 2014, when it will be illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against the sick.

HHS buried the new numbers on its website May 6 and did not put out a press release like it did for the previous update in February. A spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries about why HHS chose not to publicize this quarter's enrollment figures.

HuffPost readers: Applying for the PCIP? Tell us about it -- email arthur@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to do an interview.