On Obamacare enrollment, insurers don't share government's optimism

The Obama administration’s most recent tally of enrollees under the Affordable Care Act highlights the wildly divergent views of the program’s success status. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) touted figures released Wednesday as reason for optimism, while others see only warning signs amid the statistics.

According to HHS, enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace shot up by 53 percent in January over the previous three months and 27 percent of last month’s enrollees were the highly desirable young adults ages 18-34, who are vital to making the system financially viable. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a press release stating that signups among young adults, nicknamed “young invincibles” in insurance industry jargon, was up 3 percentage points from October through December and outpaced all other age groups combined.

“Nearly 3.3 million people enrolled in the Health Insurance Marketplace plans by Feb. 1, 2014…with January alone accounting for 1.1 million plan selections in state and federal marketplaces,” read a press statement issued Wednesday by Sebelius.

But the rosy portrait shatters under an alternate interpretation by insurance industry representative Robert Laszewski of Health Policy and Strategy Associates.

“They made a big deal about the age results,” said Laszewski after reviewing the HHS numbers. “But the greater challenge for them is the low number of people enrolling. There is no way you can get a good spread of risk with such a small percentage of the total eligible signing up.”

CBS News also received a guarded analysis from a source involved in implementation of the Affordable Care Act who supports Obamacare.

The source said the bump of young invincibles to 27 percent of January enrollees was “progress,” but added “they neglect to point out that they need roughly 40 percent to help achieve a balanced risk pool” necessary under a successful business model.

“3.3 million people is still a relatively small proportion of the population that ‘should be’ interested," added the source, who is not authorized to speak on behalf of the administration and does not wish to be identified.

Laszewski has a strikingly similar analysis and says HHS’s reported number of 3.3 million enrollees exaggerates the true picture. He says that to calculate a more accurate number, one must subtract about 20 percent of the enrollees because they haven’t paid (and so aren’t technically insured); as well as about two-thirds of the enrollees because they were already insured prior to signing up for Obamacare.

“Looking at the total of 3.3 million, netting out the non-pays, and listening to the anecdotal carrier reports, it doesn't look like we have more than a fraction--certainly something less than 10%-- of the previously uninsured,” said Laszewski.

The Obama administration insists the January figures reflect positive movement in the troubled initiative.

“These encouraging trends show that more Americans are enrolling every day, and finding quality, affordable coverage in the Marketplace,” said Sebelius.

Laszewski gave an example of why he disagrees. California and Washington State accounted for about a fourth of the January total with a combined 817,000 enrollees. “However, those two states canceled much more than that as of January 1,” said Laszewski.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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