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Latest Obamacare gaffe: Marketplace enrollment inflated by 400,000

Tania Ruiz, a navigator with La Clinica del Pueblo (left), helps Jose Morales, 23, of Washington, D.C., as he considers signing up for healthcare, February 20, 2014.
Tania Ruiz, a navigator with La Clinica del Pueblo (left), helps Jose Morales, 23, of Washington, D.C., as he considers signing up for healthcare, February 20, 2014. MCT

The Obama administration downsized the nation’s marketplace health insurance enrollment to 6.7 million people on Thursday after House investigators found the original estimates for medical coverage included 400,000 people who only had dental coverage.

The gaffe sours the otherwise flawless Nov. 15 start of the 2015 enrollment period and appears to undercut promises by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell that the new management team at HHS would be more transparent.

“A mistake was made in calculating the number of individuals with . . . marketplace enrollments,” said a statement by Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Moving forward, only individuals with medical coverage will be included in our . . . enrollment numbers.”

It’s unclear why and how the Department of Health and Human Services mixed the two enrollment figures, but the error, first reported by Bloomberg News, was uncovered by investigators from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., accused the administration of engaging in a coverup.

“Faced with large numbers of Americans running for an exit from Obamacare, instead of offering the public an accurate accounting, the administration engaged in an effort to obscure and downplay the number of dropouts,” Issa said in a statement. “Only after repeated requests from oversight committee investigators did this egregious discrepancy become apparent.”

The revised 6.7 million enrollment figure continues a downward spiral in actual signups for HealthCare.gov, the federal website for the Affordable Care Act, and the state marketplaces. It also brings the total marketplace enrollment below the original Congressional Budget Office projection of 7 million for 2014.

Earlier this month, Burwell lowered the administration’s projected enrollment for 2015 to 9.1 million people. That’s down from 13 million that the CBO had projected.

After 8.1 million people initially signed up for 2014 coverage during the first marketplace enrollment period that ended in May, Medicare Administrator Marilyn Tavenner told the oversight committee that the number had fallen to 7.3 million.

She said the dropoff resulted, in part, from non-payment of premiums, more people getting job-based coverage and people becoming eligible for coverage through Medicaid.

By mid-October, HHS officials said the total marketplace enrollment had fallen to 7.1 million people. About 110,000 people lost coverage for not providing the proper information about their income, citizenship or immigration status, officials said.

But both the 7.3 million figure and the 7.1 million figures included 400,000 people who had only dental coverage. In previous head counts, those enrollments were counted separately. Officials at HHS did not immediately respond to questions about how the error occurred, who was responsible or when HHS officials realized what had happened.

The mistake comes to light as Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and an architect of the Affordable Care Act, faces criticism for a series of videotaped comments he made that suggest the Obama administration manipulated information about the actual cost and impact of the health law in order to get the legislation through Congress.

Said Issa: “This administration still appears to be calling its Obamacare transparency plan from the Jonathan Gruber playbook: dismissing the American public’s right to know with the same deceptive arrogance that helped them pass the bill in the first place.”

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