White House Gears Up For Health Care Enrollment Rush

President Barack Obama speaks to the media as he first lady Michelle Obama meet with a group of mothers in the Oval Office of
President Barack Obama speaks to the media as he first lady Michelle Obama meet with a group of mothers in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, to discuss how health care reform could benefit their families. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is gearing up for a late-stage rush of individuals seeking to purchase health insurance coverage that will take effect before the beginning of the New Year.

A group of senior administration officials, who insisted on speaking anonymously even to describe forthcoming activities, said at a Thursday briefing that they have put 800 new agents at call centers to help with the expected rush of enrollments before the Dec. 23 deadline for coverage on Jan. 1.

Those additions would bring the total number of trained customer service representatives helping at Affordable Care Act call centers above 12,000 (over 17 sites). The total number of individuals helping facilitate insurance sign-ups is more than 80,000, the officials said, taking into account navigators, insurance agents and brokers.

In addition to staffing up, the White House has also taken painstaking efforts to reach individuals who had problems signing up for insurance because of the faulty rollout of HealthCare.gov. They have made more than 600,000 phone calls, placed "hundreds of thousands of notices via mail," and sent out more than 2 million emails "to people who were stuck in the process," one official said.

The efforts have been met with some success, at least according to the administration. Officials said that the website is now "seeing many more returning visitors than new visitors." Approximately 73 percent of people who have enrolled since early December are individuals who already visited the site a month or two ago.

That percentage, said one official, "speaks to the outreach that we have been doing in terms of consumers who had some kind of problem or situation. It speaks to the fact that people are looking for coverage Jan. 1."

While the number of enrolled may be ticking up, the hole from which the administration is digging is fairly vast. Officials acknowledged the obvious on Thursday, that a botched website launch had set projections back dramatically. But, they added, the trajectory of sign-ups in December was promising, both in the federally-run exchanges and in many state-run exchanges as well.

"Enrollment has been robust and strong and the trajectory is very encouraging," said a senior administration official.

Officials said that they expect the December uptick to fall back down in January, when there is no deadline for individuals to purchase coverage. According to White House projections, that number will level off in February before ticking up a bit and then shooting up dramatically again in March when the overall enrollment period comes to an end.

The officials downplayed early estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that they would have 7 million enrollments overall when the final deadline was hit. More important, the officials said, was the composition of the enrolled, not just in states, but within specific insurance plans, within specific markets, within those states.

They also insisted that the earlier problems that were plaguing the health care law had largely been resolved. The errors at the back end of the website –- which were causing incomplete or misleading sign-up forms to be sent to private insurers -- were dramatically reduced in scope, they insisted.

The "bad data" being sent to insurances companies was being cleaned up through direct communications between the insurers and the customers themselves. And with respect to missing pages, they constitute "fewer than 1 percent of all of the transactions that we have done since Dec. 1," one administration official said. That same official said the number of transactions that took place between October and November that resulted in a missing transaction form was "well under 15,000."

The other major problem confronting the administration is the individuals who received cancellation notices from their insurer because their plans did not meet standards under the Affordable Care Act. The officials at the briefing said that it was impossible to know the exact number impacted. But, they argued, the group was smaller than what has been reported because many of these individuals were being auto-enrolled into new plans.

All told, the officials projected that fewer than 500,000 people would enter the New Year having had their insurance policy cancelled and not purchased a new plan.

The goal is to reduce that number as much as possible. And to encourage sign-ups after the New Year, the White House is planning a more aggressive public relations campaign. The docket includes cabinet-level visits to targeted districts, more community outreach through administration allies (churches, races and farmer markets were listed as venues where the ACA would be pitched) and paid media.

Ad campaigns would "ramp that up through the course of Q1 [the first three months of 2014], again in very concentrated ways, focusing on the markets where there is the highest percentage of uninsured ... who could utilize HealthCare.gov," one administration official said.

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