WASHINGTON — More than 6 million people have enrolled in the federal and state health exchanges, President Obama announced Thursday.
This means the administration has met its latest goal, as projected by the Congressional Budget Office, to ensure the insurance system is sustainable.
Obama made the announcement on a conference call with health care navigators and volunteers while he was traveling in Italy. He thanked them for their help.
The latest milestone comes after the troubled opening of the federal exchange Oct. 1. Software problems and other issues rendered the site virtually unusable for weeks, and it took a surge of technology support to have it fixed by Nov. 30. Since then, however, enrollments have risen dramatically, particularly as the Dec. 31 and March 31 deadlines approached.
But until the government releases demographics, numbers of those who have paid their premiums, and numbers of those newly insured, the number "enrolled" won't tell a complete story, said Brendan Buck, press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"They won't say how many have paid, so the number is likely significantly lower," Buck said. "And every survey has shown most people who've signed up already had coverage, so they're not actually newly insured."
The government will have to wait for the insurers to release payment data, as well as information about the newly insured, to answer. However, some states, such as California, have reported payment rates as high as 85%.
Insurers also say it's difficult to tell who previously did not have insurance.
Sam Nussbaum, chief medical officer at insurer WellPoint, said 80% of people signing up at the company are new customers.
"We don't know yet if that means they were uninsured," he said. "But we believe that a lot of them are absolutely new to the system."
Company officials, Nussbaum said, initially worried about the number of young people enrolling in insurance. " Now what we're seeing is more and more healthy people are coming in as we get toward the end of the enrollment period," he said.
The first wave of customers, Nussbaum said, included large numbers with "significant medical need" using the pharmacy benefit. Now, however, "it's a great balance with people who are not using those resources right off the bat."
More than 1.5 million people visited HealthCare.gov Wednesday, just days ahead of the March 31 enrollment deadline. Those who do not have insurance this year will have to pay a fine with their taxes next January.
"We're at a level that's likely to support a healthy system, said Cecilia Muñoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, at the Atlantic's Health Care Forum on Thursday morning. "The insurers are feeling pretty good about where we are, and so are we."
Muñoz said she feels sure that the people entering the exchanges are people who did not have insurance before.
"We're beginning to see the levels of uninsured are starting to go down," she said. "That's how we know it's not people who had insurance before."
Muñoz clarified that anyone who attests that he or she began the enrollment process before midnight Monday — either had started the paperwork with a navigator, had waited on the phone or on the website — would be able to enroll after midnight. But she reiterated that March 31 is still the deadline.
"You have to attest that you are making a good-faith effort," she said.
Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in a blog that the call center received 430,000 calls Wednesday.
"We are seeing near record numbers of consumers coming to check out their options and enroll in coverage," she wrote. "With 4 days left for consumers to sign up for coverage, we are working hard to ensure that our systems can handle the unprecedented demand as people enroll before the March 31 deadline."