Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services director says detailed enrollment figures will be available in mid-November.
WASHINGTON — More than 700,000 people have created accounts to buy health insurance on state and federal health care exchanges since they opened Oct. 1, the director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Tuesday, although the site has been plagued by problems.
Marilyn Tavenner apologized for the site's problems in her testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, but said the agency is steadily adding more capacity to the system.
"The experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans," Tavenner said. "Some have had trouble creating accounts and logging in to the site, while others have received confusing error messages, or had to wait for slow page loads or forms that failed to respond in a timely fashion. The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people and is not acceptable."
Tavenner, however, did not disclose the number of people who have actually enrolled in health insurance through the federal exchange despite repeated questioning from Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican and the committee's chairman.
"We'll get those numbers in mid-November," Tavenner said.
"I understand you're not publicly not releasing those numbers, but do you have those numbers?" Camp asked.
"Chairman Camp, we'll have those numbers in mid-November," Tavenner said again.
Camp asked about how many who have tried to enroll are young people, who are considered essential to the program's success, and how many who have tried to enroll are "illegal aliens."
"I suspect that many of the people who are holding off are the young and healthy," Camp said. "That's going to be very important to have a functioning system."
He asked how that would affect premiums. Premiums are locked in for 2014, Tavenner said. Camp said she was not meeting the projections she needed to meet for young people. Tavenner said she had not released any numbers that would determine whether those projections are being met.
Much of what Tavenner's written testimony had already been put out by the government last week as Health and Human Services performed damage control almost one month into the operation of the HealthCare.gov website.
Camp asked if Tavenner was participating in Obamacare, and Tavenner said she was not eligible. Federal employees have insurance provided through their employer, the federal government.
In response to a question about whether thousands of people were going to lose their existing insurance policies after President Obama had promised they could keep it under the Affordable Care Act, Tavenner said some insurance companies were changing their policies to meet the new requirements of the law.
"The plans were grandfathered in 2010," Tavenner said. "Some insurance companies have decided that they want to offer new plans, and if they want to offer new plans," and they have to have the protections required by the Affordable Care Act.
Increased health insurance premiums have been a problem for years before the law was passed in 2010, Tavenner said, and premiums have stabilized since then.
"That's what I would say to them," Tavenner said. "I would try to explain to them the real issues."
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the panel's ranking Democrat, read a letter from insurer Blue Cross. "We're not cutting people," the letter said. "We're transitioning people." The letter stated that the company offered people several options that would be comparable in price to their own plans.
Problems with the website should lead to a delay in the individual mandate, the requirement that uninsured Americans either buy insurance or pay a fine, said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas.
Tavenner said a delay was not necessary, and people would be able to enroll by March 31.
Johnson also asked about a CBS News report that he said found people were given inaccurate information from the site, such as lower premiums than they would actually be required to pay.
"If we've given people the wrong information, we'll certainly correct it," Tavenner said. "But I do not know what CBS News is referring to."
The HealthCare.gov site does provide estimated premium costs for people in counties throughout the country, but the site notes that they are estimates.
He asked if the website is 100% safe from people who would try to steal Social Security numbers. Tavenner said all required safety mechanisms are in place.
Much of Tavenner's testimony echoed administration comments last week about fixes made to the site after its troubled launch. Although the site has been operating more smoothly in recent days, the repeated glitches have alienated many Americans trying to buy insurance.
Tavenner spelled out steps taken in recent days to fix the site, including bringing in Jeffrey Zients, former acting administrator for the Office of Management and Budget, to head the attempt. She also cited the recruitment of technicians from the private industry, the installation of monitoring software to determine where problems, asking consumers to explain the problems they've encountered, shutting down the site in the middle of the night for fixes and asking technology employees to work on the problems around the clock.