As deadline looms, Obamacare signups grow, but still short of goals

A month before the end of Obamacare's open enrollment period, 4.2 million Americans - 25 percent of whom were between the ages of 18 and 34 - signed up for coverage through the new health care marketplaces, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Tuesday. The numbers lag behind the administration's original hopes for the program, but officials said the administration expects millions more to sign up before the March 31 deadline.

"What we're finding is that if more Americans find just how affordable insurance can be, more are signing up to get covered," Sebelius told reporters.

Added Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, "We are confident millions more Americans will continue to enroll."

Bataille declined to say, however, whether the administration still expects to reach its initial goal of getting 7 million Obamacare enrollees this year. The total number of enrollees grew by about 900,000 between the end of January (3.3 million) and the end of February (4.2 million).

Open enrollment on the new Affordable Care Act marketplaces began in October, but the significant technical problems with HealthCare.gov -- the site that serves as the Obamacare portal for 36 states -- initially slowed down enrollment. Consequently, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said that 6 million people, rather than 7 million, are likely to enroll.

Bataille said HealthCare.gov "continues to perform well" and is ready for an "anticipated surge in enrollment." The site is now supporting hundreds of thousands of visits per day, she said, with an error rate than is less than 0.5 percent. In addition to improving the website, the administration has added 2,000 representatives to take phone calls regarding Obamacare, bringing the total of trained call center representatives to 14,000.

The administration is also conducting outreach to encourage enrollment among certain populations, particularly among young adults. Last year, the White House said that by the end of March, young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 would make up about 40 percent of the Obamacare marketplace. Similarly, health policy experts said that in order to keep the new Obamacare marketplaces sustainable, the proportion of young adults enrolled should be close to the proportion they represent in the pool of potential individual market enrollees -- or around 40 percent.

Bataille said the administration is "encouraged" by young-adult enrollment, even though the percentage of young people signing up remains unchanged from January. The number of 18 to 34 year-olds grew from 807,515 at the end of January to 1,075,990 at the end of February.

To encourage more youth enrollment, President Obama recently joined actor Zach Galifianakis on his satirical web show "Between Two Ferns" to plug HealthCare.gov. The interview was published Tuesday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, roughly 19,000 people who watched it "then took the action to click on HealthCare.gov," Bataille said.

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